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Silverton flirting with Superfund?

Meeting a first step in understanding possible cleanup process
Water flowing from the Red and Bonita Mine north of Silverton contains magnesium, zinc, copper, lead and iron. It kills just about every thing in its path.

SILVERTON – For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has tried to designate parts of Silverton a Superfund site. Yet for years, many locals have considered the word “Superfund” dirtier than Cement Creek.

But tonight, the EPA is going to explain that word – and the years-long cleanup process a Superfund designation might entail – to San Juan County commissioners.

It’s a small step – nothing may come of it.

“This is for the commissioners to try and understand some of the technical, more detailed parts of Superfund. We hope it will be low-key question-and-answer,” commissioner Pete McKay said.

The meeting is the first concrete sign from the county commissioners that the complex, political knot that has strangled federal cleanup attempts in Silverton since the 1990s is, perhaps, at last loosening.

A series of abandoned mines in the Upper Animas Basin has been spewing toxic metals into the local water system for more than 20 years. Scientists say it’s the largest untreated mine drainage in the state, and problematic concentrations of zinc, copper, cadmium, iron, lead, manganese and aluminum are choking off the Upper Animas River’s ecosystem.

La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said Silverton’s environmental calamity is “huge, affecting so many jurisdictions and communities. But it has felt like we were sort of at a stalemate.”

Lachelt said San Juan County commissioners now are leading the issue, not ignoring it.

“The La Plata County commissioners stand by the San Juan County commissioners in seeking out all of this information and seeking a rapid solution to this long-lingering problem,” she said. “I don’t think there’s one single reason it’s taken so long, and we’re certainly not there yet. But I think we’re seeing a lot of folks come together and realize we really don’t want to lose any more species of fish. We can’t afford to, and we have to act.”

‘Objections worn thin’

Since last summer, political pressure to find a solution in Silverton has escalated.

Rob Robinson, who used to represent the Bureau of Land Management within the Animas River Stakeholders Group, sent a letter and petition with 15 signatures in December to the EPA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment urging a Superfund listing in Silverton. Robinson said for years he had kept faith that the Animas River Stakeholders Group’s collaborative process would work.

“I was a member of (the stakeholders) for many years and believed strongly in what they were doing: community-based, watershed-based cleanup. I guess it’s not gone so well,” he said. “In fact, it’s really disastrous when you compare the situation with what’s happened at other Superfund sites.”

Steve Gunderson, director of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division, said he was “appalled” by what he saw when he toured the Red and Bonita Mine in 2012.

“This site, even though it’s complicated and remote, is in an incredibly beautiful part of the state. It may take a Superfund designation to bring the resources to bear,” he said.

But Gunderson said he doubts the EPA will “move forward with a Superfund designation unless there’s support with the local government because Superfund can be fairly controversial, and the first reaction is often angst about what the economic ramifications might be.”

Many Silverton residents interviewed by The Durango Herald last summer feared a Superfund designation would stymie tourism and soil the prospect of mining’s return.

“Superfund isn’t the answer,” said Steve Fearn, a co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group and a town resident. “I want to see Silverton become a successful, vibrant community again. Right now, it isn’t, and mining is the one thing we have.”

But Robinson said such objections had worn thin.

“God, they’re the same positions they took 25 years ago! I think ‘Gee-whiz, it’s like a broken record, going on and on,’” Robinson said. “People like Steve Fearn argue a Superfund site will discourage mining investment. But the pollution is discouraging people from mining.

“What Steve Fearn says is immaterial. What’s important is that the Clean Water Act promises to clean up the nation’s water, making it all swimmable, fishable. That’s the goal, and the people administering ... Superfund aren’t doing their job,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

Dying fish, no progress

In the absence of a Superfund designation, for years, the stakeholders group has tried to work collaboratively with the EPA and Sunnyside Gold Corp. to improve water quality in the Animas River.

However, water quality recently has gotten much worse in the river.

Between 2005 and 2010, three out of four of the fish species that lived in the Upper Animas beneath Silverton died. According to studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, the volume of insects and the number of bug species have plummeted. And since 2006, USGS scientists have found that the water flowing under Bakers Bridge – then downstream, into Durango – carries concentrations of zinc that are toxic to animal life.

The technology to clean the dirty water exists: a limestone water treatment plant. But the stakeholders group has no money to pay for it, and the EPA estimates it would cost between $12 million and $17 million to build and $1 million a year to run – in perpetuity.

Sunnyside Gold Corp., the last mining company to operate in Silverton, denies all liability for cleaning up the worsened metal pollution. It has offered $6.5 million in return for being released from all liability. Kinross Gold Corp., an international mining conglomerate, bought Sunnyside in 2003. The company generated nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2013, according to its fourth-quarter report.

Sunnyside’s game plan

On Monday, within hours of commissioners announcing that most of their Wednesday meeting would be dedicated to discussing Superfund with the EPA, Larry Perino, Sunnyside’s representative in the stakeholders group, sent co-coordinators Fearn, Bill Simon and Peter Butler a letter proposing the company’s “game plan” for cleaning up the Animas River.

The plan centers on all parties continuing to work through the stakeholders group, bulkheading the Red and Bonita Mine and using the money Sunnyside already has promised – with compound interest. The plan does not include pursuing Superfund listing.

Asked whether Sunnyside’s game plan was timed to defuse the political momentum Superfund may be gaining in Silverton, Butler, who also is chairman of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission, said, “It certainly may have something to do with the meeting with the EPA – I wouldn’t be surprised at all. I think everyone recognizes that there is pressure to get something done.”

Butler still praised the game plan as sensible.

“It’s a good idea, I think. It outlines what’s going on anyway,” he said. “Each one of those steps has been talked about at one of those stakeholders meetings.”

He said the stakeholders had yet to decide whether to adopt Sunnyside’s plan, and many of the steps it outlines likely would be taken even if parts of Silverton become a Superfund site.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

If you go

The San Juan County commissioners will hold their regularly scheduled meeting at 6:30 p.m. today at the San Juan County Courthouse, 1557 Greene St., in Silverton. The main topic will be what a Superfund designation by the Environmental Protection Agency entails.

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