Whether you support the Superfund program or not, colleagues agree, the hazardous cleanup of mines surrounding Silverton could not be in more trusted hands than the Environmental Protection Agency’s Rebecca Thomas.
“If you have Rebecca, you are extremely lucky,” said Tony Berget, a former Lincoln County Commissioner in Libby, Montana, home to one of the largest and longest running asbestos cleanup sites in the United States.
“At times, the (Superfund process) went really well, and at other times, I’ve been very disappointed. But Rebecca, especially, was really willing to listen. She was one of the bright stars of my experience with the EPA.”
Last month, the EPA formally listed 48-mining sites responsible for degrading water quality in the Animas River Basin as a Superfund site, with Thomas, based in Denver, as project manager for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund program.
The announcement came just a year after the Gold King Mine blowout, in which an EPA crew triggered a massive release of mine wastewater, reigniting the longstanding issue of metal loading into the watershed.
Yet the blowout also reversed stubborn resistance from the small, historic mining town of Silverton, home to a fluctuating population of about 600, not so keen on parting ways with its legacy of mining.
It’s a situation Thomas, throughout her career, has stepped into with ease, as evidenced by major projects in Libby, Montana, and Leadville.
By the mid-1990s, tensions between the once-thriving community of Leadville and the EPA surrounding the cleanup of 16-square-miles of mining sites had escalated into a vitriolic, hostile environment.
“They came in and said: ‘We are the EPA, and you will do this,’” said resident and environmental consultant Mike Conlin. “One day everyone that lived in the Superfund boundary got a brown paper envelope saying: ‘Congratulations. You’re a potentially responsible party and may be responsible for the cost of cleanup.’”
In Gillian Klucas’s 2004 book detailing the bitter confrontation – Leadville: The Struggle To Revive an American Town – effigies of EPA personnel were dragged through town, cars bore “EPA: GO TO HELL” bumper stickers and one state senator even championed a public hanging.
“My suggestion is to simply hang one (EPA staffer) at each end of town,” state senator Ken Chlouber, a Leadville native, told a national Republican Party in 1994. “In my community, that is the voice of moderation.”
Relationships between the two entities had deteriorated so badly that EPA replaced its fledging personnel with two new project managers: Mike Holmes and Thomas.
“That was very much the turning point,” said Howard Tritz, an ex-miner and county assessor at the time. “They were decent. They explained things to people, and they were not belligerent.”
Indeed, Klucas’s book said local newspapers proclaimed “a new era of cooperation” in 1998 after the arrival of Holmes and Thomas, which eventually led to one of the most complicated but also successful cleanups in the EPA’s history. The Arkansas River, for instance, once referred to as an “industrial sewer,” now boasts a Gold Metal fishery, and is one of the most popular rivers to fish in the state of Colorado.
“They (Holmes and Thomas) were able to direct the energy of the community to the issues rather than personalities,” Conlin added. “They had more of a tendency to say: How can we work together to make something with long-term benefits to the community?’”
After seven decades of vermiculite mining, the small town of Libby, in the corner of northwestern Montana, found itself subject to toxic asbestos, which health officials believed killed at least 400 residents and sickened thousands of others.
Nick Raines, Lincoln County asbestos resource program manager, said that not unlike Silverton, the town of about 2,500 residents was suspicious of federal intervention.
But through 17 years of working together, residents have mostly accepted, and more importantly understood, the need for EPA’s cleanup. Thomas, Raines said, had a large role in building that relationship.
“The EPA went through a number of project managers, but Rebecca stuck it through to completion,” Raines said. “She really understands the need for investigation and cleanup, and understands the stress the community is put under through that process.”
Indeed, Barget, who still is not entirely sold on the EPA, said even when he disagreed with Thomas, there was always a feeling of mutual respect.
“She didn’t beat around the bush. She didn’t play games, and she was up front and honest,” he said. “Sometimes when it was really bad news, she was the only one who’d show up, and I always felt like she carried our message back to Denver.”
Now, Thomas, 53, is entering her 24th year in the EPA’s Superfund program, and is turning her attention to the highly mineralized and complicated network of mines surrounding Silverton.
Early on, town and county officials, as well as residents, demanded a seat at the table in EPA’s decision-making process, even delaying a vote to pursue Superfund designation until that assurance was met.
Already, it seems like EPA is living up to that promise.
“Rebecca is genuinely concerned and has excellent communication with the community,” said Silverton Town Administrator Bill Gardner. “We were promised a seat at the table, and that’s exactly what’s happening.”
Thomas, for her part, said she was taken aback by the amount of investment from groups such as the Animas River Stakeholders Group, which has carried on nearly two decades of remediation projects in the basin.
She said this winter local, state and federal agencies will review a swath of data taken over the past year, and start to formulate a strategy to tackle what is one of the worst metal-loading districts in the American West.
“We need to work with all affected communities and establish what we want this cleanup to do,” Thomas said. “And I think Superfund does bring the resources to a project of this size and complexity that would be hard for a group of individuals to fully address.”
Rebecca Thomas earned an engineering degree at Kansas State University with a minor in French in 1986. She worked for a consulting firm out of Kansas before eventually moving to Denver, taking a job with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Aside from Superfund sites in Leadville and Libby, Montana, she has also worked on major projects outside Salt Lake City at the Kennecott Mine site, and a remediation of the highly controversial radium contamination in Denver.
She has been married to her husband, Stuart Francone, for 24 years. The couple have two sons and two daughters, all in high school. She splits her time between Denver and Leadville, and more recently, the last week of every month in Silverton.