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Silverton, San Juan County say yes to Superfund

Research on mines to clean up could take years
It was a full house Monday in Silverton as town and San Juan County officials took comments before voting to seek Superfund status for the mining district north of town.

SILVERTON – A watershed moment was registered in Silverton on Monday evening as the Silverton Board of Trustees and San Juan County Commission unanimously supported Superfund status for the mining network north of town.

Separate votes from both boards direct Gov. John Hickenlooper to request Superfund designation this spring to remediate as many as 50 mines in the Gladstone area that have contaminated the Upper Animas, Mineral Creek and Cement Creek for more than a century.

Even the most reluctant officials were united with the more willing over a common allegiance to the health of the community’s residents and waterways.

“I was not in favor of Superfund. I still don’t like it,” San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman said. “But if we don’t do it, it will be done for us.”

About 70 residents and health and environment officials gathered at Silverton Town Hall to ask questions prior to the votes. Many opinions denoted fears that the boundaries of the proposed Superfund site might expand, or come too close to town, and that the community will be deprived of a say in Environmental Protection Agency decisions.

“Is it possible that as they find mines to remediate, this spreads into San Miguel County or into Silverton?” asked local Melissa Gillon, referring to the EPA’s request last year to do soil testing in town, suspecting contamination from nearby mine sites.

Paul Sunderland, an attorney representing San Juan County throughout Superfund talks, answered questions from residents Monday and assured them that the site parameters might shrink or change, but not expand.

On Friday, Silverton officials released several documents on Superfund, including the proposed site boundaries, objectives and a letter from the EPA promising Silverton’s inclusion throughout the process, but those attending Monday’s meeting said there are still unknowns.

The impact the EPA’s presence will have on roads, emergency response and housing in Silverton remains unclear, as is the fate of the temporary water treatment plant the EPA has committed to operate until fall 2016.

Officials are also unsure how remedial work would obstruct access to San Juan County’s back country – a major draw for visitors and locals alike in tourist-dependent Silverton – but Sunderland said he anticipates the EPA will pursue the least obstructive path.

Silverton’s Superfund story is an unusual one, given the EPA’s responsibility for the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill that unleashed a 3 million-gallon torrent of acid mine sludge into the Animas River. The spill rekindled long-standing talks about mine cleanup and should guarantee the community’s voice in the process.

Remediation is a long way off, however.

A federal committee will meet in mid-April to discuss the priority of the proposed area, to be named the Bonita Peak Mining District Site. A 60-day comment period will follow, and if the mining district is added to the National Priorities List, the EPA will begin an extensive analysis of the mines in question.

The EPA spends an average of six years on research before any remedial action is taken, but local officials are confident the EPA’s role in the Gold King spill will again work in the community’s favor and streamline the process.

In the meantime, La Plata County, Durango and state entities have given their support to the pursuit of Superfund.

“Hundreds of abandoned mines in Colorado are polluting our waters, endangering the health of Coloradans and holding back local economies,” Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said in a prepared statement. “Cleaning up this pollution and protecting people in the region is a priority for Silverton and San Juan County, and we thank them for their engagement and work on this issue. A Superfund designation will help expedite the cleanup efforts.”

Bennet said he will continue working with state and local officials throughout the process and push for the necessary funding.

“This is a victory for collaboration and consensus-building,” said Ty Churchwell, San Juan Mountain coordinator for Trout Unlimited. “After years of debate and disagreements, our local communities and diverse stakeholders have finally come together to agree on what the solution to hardrock mine pollution in the Animas will look like.”

jpace@durangoherald.com

Superfund vote news release (PDF)

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