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Waiting for Superfund

With January deadline passed, Gov. Hickenlooper hopes for the best

DENVER – State remediation, hazardous materials and waste management officials believe that a Superfund listing would provide the best resources to tackle leaking mines in the Upper Animas River Basin. But it would not be an instantaneous fix.

A listing designates a site as blighted, allowing for an influx of federal dollars for restoration.

“With Superfund listings, it starts like this, the EPA wants to know what the governor thinks and the governor wants to know what the community thinks,” said Monica Sheets, program manager for the state’s Remediation Programs, Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division.

The Environmental Protection Agency generally won’t list a site without a governor’s support letter. Gov. John Hickenlooper is waiting for Silverton and San Juan County officials to offer an official opinion. The communities delayed a vote in late January, but the EPA confirmed Friday that it extended a Jan. 31 deadline to Feb.29 to assure consideration in March.

On Friday, Hickenlooper met with the mayors of Durango and Silverton and officials from San Juan County, and he said everyone wants to pursue Superfund listing.

“These communities have made it clear that a Superfund designation is the most viable path to address pollution in the affected area and protect our public health and environment,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re all working around the clock to ensure that remaining points of negotiation are resolved in time for the March Federal Register listing in order to move this process forward.”

Hickenlooper said in an interview earlier in the week that it has not been easy to negotiate through the components that go into considering a Superfund listing. But Hickenlooper cited communities that have done it, including Minturn, Leadville, Creede and parts of Boulder County.

And the governor emphasized that something must be done to resolve the mine contamination issue.

If the Upper Animas is designated as a Superfund site, it would trigger an investigation phase, in which officials would evaluate the situation, determine the nature and extent of the contamination and look at ways to restore the site.

“It’s going to take a broad coalition in order to be able to most effectively address these impacts and these areas ...” said Patrick Pfaltzgraff, director of the Colorado Water Quality Control Division. “But I’m an eternal optimist.”

For many years, Silverton and San Juan County officials were hesitant to push for a Superfund listing, worried that it would be a black eye on the town’s reputation and hurt its local economy, especially tourism. But Sheets said town and county officials have shifted toward supporting it.

“We’ve spent a lot of effort to help them understand the benefits of the program,” Sheets said.

State officials underscore that without a listing, few resources are available to them.

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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