For the past few years, a question has loomed over the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund site of mines polluting the Animas River headwaters around Silverton: What exactly does the cleanup project seek to accomplish?
On Wednesday, the EPA answered.
“We’ve come up with three goals that will drive our actions moving forward,” said Doug Benevento, EPA regional administrator, in an interview with The Durango Herald.
EPA had planned public meetings in Durango and Silverton this week to present the goals, but the agency had to cancel the trip because of a winter storm hitting Colorado.
Benevento explained in a phone interview the goals are to improve water quality, stabilize contaminating sites and minimize the risk of future blowouts.
What does this look like on the ground? Most visibly: The EPA hopes to improve water quality in Animas River in the waterway’s stretch from Silverton to Bakers Bridge, about 15 miles north of Durango, to the point where it could support healthy aquatic life communities.
“We believe we can achieve fisheries in that stretch of river,” said Rebecca Thomas, the Superfund project’s lead manager.
Ever since miners began digging holes in the highly mineralized mountains around Silverton, the Animas River and its aquatic life have battled adverse conditions as a result of heavy metal loading into the waterway.
Case in point: The Animas is all but devoid of aquatic life from Silverton to Bakers Bridge.
In August 2015, the EPA was working at one of these long inactive mines when a contracted crew breached the portal of the Gold King Mine, releasing 3 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas River.
About a year later, the EPA declared 48 mining-related sites as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site in the hopes of improving water quality in the Animas River headwaters.
Peter Butler, with the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said there is precedent for fish returning to the Animas above Durango. In the early 2000s, for instance, a water treatment plant near Silverton operated by Sunnyside Gold Corp. had the river probably at its cleanest since Westerners arrived.
But that all changed when the plant shutdown in 2004.
EPA also hopes to improve water quality for aquatic life in stretches of the Upper Animas above Silverton and in two areas of Mineral Creek, a tributary.
The EPA’s second objective seeks to prevent erosion of waste rock piles, make sure rain or snowmelt doesn’t drain over mine waste and remove waste rock from creek banks, among other measures.
And for the agency’s third goal, to minimize the risk of mine blowouts, the EPA will consult with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety to identify the mines most at risk of a release.
Ty Churchwell, with Trout Unlimited, said the EPA’s goals are in agreement with a plan drafted by a community group over a year-and-a-half.
“I’m very pleased to see our goals align,” he said. “I think that speaks highly of that process we put together.”
But now comes the tricky part: How to actually implement cleanup projects to accomplish the goals?
Thomas said it’s still too early in the EPA’s attempt to gain a good understanding of contamination in the Animas River basin to have the nuts and bolts of how the Superfund will play out. The EPA is hoping to carry out a quick action plan this summer that would address 26 mine sites over the next few years.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Sunnyside Gold Corp. closed the treatment plant in 2004.