Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine, is not happy about the proposed Superfund cleanup around Silverton, saying the suggestion to plug more mines only redistributes potentially toxic water and doesn’t solve the problem.
“(The Environmental Protection Agency) is apparently not interested in solutions,” Hennis said in an email to The Durango Herald. “To my eyes, EPA is in the business of perpetuating problems to expand the size of the EPA.”
Hennis purchased the Gold King Mine in 2005, but the aspiring entrepreneur based in Golden has had an interest in the mines that dot the San Juan Mountains around Silverton since the mid-1990s. Now, he owns a handful of old mining sites that he intended to sell as a complex to revamp the industry in San Juan County.
But, two of his mines – the Mogul and Gold King – started discharging wastewater shortly after the state of Colorado and Sunnyside Gold Corp. placed bulkheads (essentially plugs) on the American Tunnel, which drains the vast Sunnyside Mine network, in the 1990s.
In 2014, the EPA decided pollution had gotten so bad, the agency began its own remediation project. That’s when one of its contracted crews on Aug. 5, 2015, accidentally triggered a blowout at the Gold King Mine, sending 3 million gallons of wastewater down the Animas and San Juan rivers.
Just a year later, in fall 2016, the EPA declared the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, which consists of 48 or so mining-related sites identified as the worst contributors to degrading water quality in the Animas River.
A handful of the sites belong to Hennis.
Recently, the EPA asked for the public’s input about the best approach for the cleanup.
In December, two community groups formed to help guide the Superfund process – the Citizens Advisory Group and the Silverton-San Juan County Planning Group – submitted letters to the EPA with a similar recommendation.
The main message: focus on the sites – namely the Gold King, American Tunnel, Mogul and Red & Bonita – which are contributing the most amount of contaminated metals into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.
According to data from the now-defunct Animas River Stakeholders Group, almost half of all metal loading from the 120 draining mines sampled around Silverton comes from these four sources.
And the suggested solution? Place more bulkheads.
“While currently the (Bonita Peak) enjoys high-priority status as a Superfund site, the (community group) is quite concerned its priority could change in the future,” the CAG wrote. “... Bulkheads can be funded with manageable, annual budgeting, unlike a large water treatment facility, which may need a big financial infusion all at once.”
Hennis, for his part, has long maintained that the original bulkheads placed on the American Tunnel caused his mines to start to discharge mine wastewater. Sunnyside Gold has adamantly denied the Sunnyside Mine is connected geologically to Hennis’ mines.
Regardless, Hennis said he was “shocked and appalled” to learn the community groups were in favor of more bulkheads as a main treatment option.
“Bulkheading doesn’t work,” Hennis wrote. “It appears all they accomplished in the long term was to re-distribute acid mine water flows elsewhere, and in the same volume as the original problem.”
Hennis says that if the Gold King and Red & Bonita are plugged, it could shift water back into the American Tunnel, where bulkheads there could be overwhelmed.
“Rolling the dice on a potential catastrophic failure of the American Tunnel bulkheads makes no sense whatsoever,” he said. “If a release of 3 million gallons of mine water from the Gold King raised absolute havoc downstream, a potential release of billions of gallons from the Sunnyside Mine Pool would have unthinkable consequences.”
Hennis instead said the only long-term solution would be to drain the Sunnyside Mine pool, treat the water and shut off spots where water gets into the Sunnyside Mine network.
But this could be costly.
Richard Mylott, spokesman for EPA, said the agency is working to understand the impacts that bulkheading would have on water quality and water levels within the Cement Creek area.
“Contrary to the suggestion (made by Hennis), no final decisions have been made in regard to future bulkheading in this area,” he said. “All future EPA response actions – including bulkheading – will be informed by the ongoing remedial investigation of the Bonita Peak Groundwater System.”
Mylott said EPA has installed several wells to monitor the groundwater system when it tests the closure of the Red & Bonita.
“This effort will inform future decisions regarding the bulkhead and the larger context of actions taken at the site,” he said. “Furthermore, our current evaluation of the American Tunnel bulkheads does not indicate that a catastrophic failure is likely.”
Since the 2015 blowout, discharges from the Gold King Mine have been funneled into a temporary water treatment plant.