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Sunnyside Gold challenges EPA’s Superfund list

Mining company says EPA did not properly evaluate all mine sites
Water flows out of the American Tunnel north of Silverton. The American Tunnel was bulkheaded by Sunnyside Gold, backing up the mine pool. Researchers believe the water has seeped into other mines, but Sunnyside owners say that is not the case.

Sunnyside Gold Corp. is challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently declared Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund designation, arguing some mining sites in the listing were unlawfully included.

“To be clear, we have no objections to there being a Superfund listing,” Sunnyside Gold spokesman Larry Perino said Tuesday. “The petition is only challenging the unlawful listing of sites that were not assessed at all under the EPA’s own Hazard Ranking System, which was created for the purpose of assessing whether sites should be listed under Superfund.”

The petition – filed Dec. 8 in the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit – says the mining company “supports the improvement of water quality and habitats in the Animas River” and has no objection to sites listed that have been properly evaluated.

However, Sunnyside Gold argued that of the 48 mining sites around Silverton included in the district, some have not been subjected to the screening test that scores sites on relative threat, if any, to human health or welfare, or to the environment.

The court filing said further arguments would be “fully set forth in SGC’s brief in support of this petition,” which has not been filed. Calls to Sunnyside Gold’s lawyers, Crowley Fleck PLLP of Billings, Montana, were not returned.

Cynthia Peterson, community involvement coordinator for the EPA, declined comment Tuesday.

Peterson sent an email to local officials Tuesday morning that filing of the petition does not change the status of the Bonita Peak Mining District.

“The project team plans to continue work at the site as planned while the review process proceeds,” she wrote. “At this time, we don’t know how long the review process may take or when a decision may be expected.”

The Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site was officially declared on Sept. 9 – just more than a year after the EPA caused the Gold King Mine blowout while conducting remediation work on the inactive mine on Aug. 5, 2015.

Included in the listing are 48 mining-related sites the EPA says are the main contributors to degrading water quality in the Animas River Basin, leeching heavy metals and other pollutants into the waterway.

As part of the EPA’s efforts this summer, 19 mine sites went through the agency’s Hazard Ranking System, said EPA’s system expert and environmental scientist Jennifer Wendel.

For the remaining 27 mining sites and two study areas, Wendel said the EPA plans to conduct further investigations to get a better understanding of their impact in the watershed.

“They are listed as possible sources at this time but included in (the Superfund) because we had enough evidence to suggest they could potentially be causing an issue and should be included in the listing,” she said.

After the EPA announced this fall the Superfund listing would address 48 mining sites, locals familiar with the geology of the region questioned whether the agency took too broad a scope for its cleanup efforts.

The EPA and others, however, have argued that for water quality to truly improve in the basin, there needs to be a comprehensive look at all contributing sources.

Rebecca Thomas, EPA’s project manager for the Superfund site, has maintained throughout the process that as the agency continues to evaluate the basin, the exact number of mining sites could change.

It’s unclear what specific sites Sunnyside Gold’s petition calls into question until further arguments are filed. The company has two properties in the Superfund listing: the Sunnyside Mine and the Mayflower tailings, located along the Animas River.

The two sites were not included in this year’s assessment of 19 mines through the Hazard Ranking System.

However, the Sunnyside Mine, which was bulkheaded in the late 1990s at the American Tunnel, has long been suspected of causing other adjacent mines to begin discharging acidic, metal-laden water, namely the Gold King Mine.

And the Mayflower tailings, too, have been considered one of the main culprits of heavy-metal loading into the stretch of the upper Animas River between Arrastra Gulch and Silverton.

Sunnyside Gold over the years has conducted a number of cleanup projects, with Perino estimating about $15 million has been directed toward remediation since 1991.

Earlier this year, Sunnyside Gold rescinded an additional $10 million offer for further cleanup projects, saying it would direct those funds toward Superfund-related litigation. In exchange for the $10 million, the company asked to be absolved of any further liability.

Sunnyside Gold is considered the largest “potentially responsible party” in the district – a term the EPA uses for entities it considers are financially on the hook for cleanup.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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