A Superfund that consists of nearly 50 mining sites around Silverton will remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s high-priority list after public pressure mounted at the prospect of removing it.
The Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site was designated in fall 2016, about a year after an EPA-contracted crew breached the entrance of the Gold King Mine, sending 3 million gallons of water laced with heavy metals into the Animas River.
In 2017, the Bonita Peak Mining District was placed on a newly created “Administrator’s Emphasis List,” which is intended to speed up what can be a lengthy and drawn-out Superfund process.
As of August, a total of 14 Superfund sites were on the list.
“The site (Bonita Peak) obviously attracted a lot of attention with the Gold King Mine, and it immediately had a high saliency level in terms of concerns for the community,” said Greg Sopkin, EPA Region 8 administrator.
EPA officials say being on the Emphasis List helped speed up the process for developing a “site management plan” for Bonita Peak Mining District, which is expected to be finalized this fall.
In recent weeks, however, it appeared the EPA intended to take the Bonita Peak Mining District off the list to coincide with the milestone of releasing the site management plan.
It should be noted that coming off the Emphasis List does not mean a site is no longer considered a Superfund site.
After the idea of delisting from the Emphasis List became known, local pressure surfaced to keep the Silverton site on it.
“There was quite a bit of pushback from the community,” said Peter Butler, chairman of the Bonita Peak Mining District Community Advisory Group, which provides feedback to the EPA.
Butler said the group argued that the Bonita Peak Mining District should not come off the Emphasis List until after the site management plan has been in place long enough to judge whether it is working.
“We argued a plan isn’t that good unless you know how well it’s going to be implemented,” Butler said.
San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier said he was concerned if the Bonita Peak Mining District were to come off the Emphasis List, it could affect funding and available resources for the cleanup.
“If we have to have them here for decades, we may as well get some money from them, instead of being left on the list with nothing happening,” Fetchenhier said.
EPA officials maintain that being on the Emphasis List does not affect available funding for a Superfund site. Still, Sopkin said it was eventually decided to wait to delist the Bonita Peak Mining District at least until the end of 2021.
“I am fully confident that EPA is going to continue to devote substantial resources to it,” Sopkin said of the Bonita Peak Mining District.
In August, the EPA said it had spent more than $75 million on the site.
Next week, the EPA will release a draft of the site management plan, a five-year strategic plan for cleanup in the Animas River basin that addresses how to accomplish water quality goals laid out in the past year or so.
Previously, the EPA has said it wants to improve water quality to better support aquatic life in the Animas River just below Silverton and at Bakers Bridge, north of Durango, as well as in certain stretches of Mineral Creek.
“Basically, (the site management plan) ... allows us to document in a transparent way how tasks are going to be prioritized,” said Christina Progess, the EPA’s lead for the Bonita Peak Mining District.
The EPA will open a public comment period on the site management plan with an eye to finalize the document by the end of October.