Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine, was vacationing at a remote lake in upstate New York when a friend sent him images of the Environmental Protection Agency-contracted crew’s triggered blowout on his property, effectively turning the Animas River into an orange spectacle. He was speechless and horrified, but not surprised.
“I’ve been trying to make everybody aware of the dangers posed by the Sunnyside Mine pool for 14 years,” he told The Durango Herald last week. “But when I saw the pictures, I just felt my life was over. I just thought, ‘Oh God, what did they do?’”
The EPA, investigating the Gold King Mine’s partially collapsed tunnel, accidently released an estimated 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage Aug. 5 into Cement Creek, down the Animas River and into the San Juan River in New Mexico.
Hennis, for his part, has long maintained increased flows from the Gold King Mine are a result of groundwater seeping from the vast, adjacent Sunnyside Mine network after it was plugged, first in 1996.
“I went up to the Sunnyside offices that were in Gladstone at that point and said, ‘I’d like to talk about the discharge,’” he said. “They denied everything, and have been denying it ever since.”
Gold King purchased in 2005
Hennis, 56, was raised in Ohio’s coal country, and eventually went on to study the economics of the natural resource industry at Harvard in 1978. After graduating, he worked as a metals trader in New York City and Switzerland up until he first visited Colorado in the mid-1980s.
Like many who end up in the small mountain hamlet, Hennis fell in love with the quaintness of Silverton and the beauty of the San Juan Mountains and decided to stay. He then became the embodiment of the classic mining prospector and started purchasing mining claims with dreams of striking it rich in the West.
He acquired his first mine in a back-taxes sale in 1995 – the Mogul, which he estimates still holds 5 million tons of ore. In 2005, he picked up Gold King Mine and a few other scatterings of claims throughout the district. And just this past September, he closed on a sale of the old Howardsville Mill site.
When all was said and done, Hennis had an appealing mining package for anyone interested in the still-mineral-rich Silverton caldera. He has never mined the property, and said he never had that intention.
Historically “dry” mines – both the Mogul and Gold King – began discharging shortly after the state and Sunnyside agreed to bulkhead the American Tunnel in the late 1990s. And in 2014, the EPA decided pollution had gotten so bad, the agency began its own remediation project in the district.
“(The EPA) decided it was too big a job for that year, so they piled many, many tons of earth and rock on the portal to, quote, prevent a blowout during the winter,” he said. “In doing so, they created the blowout conditions this year.”
In the aftermath of the Aug. 5 blowout, Hennis said he gave the EPA the keys to his land for an immediate cleanup response. But since, he claims the federal agency has enforced a complete takeover of his property.
“They’ve been so thoroughly arrogant, incompetent, and frankly criminal in their outlook, that it’s kind of like dealing with the mafia,” he said. “It is very much an act of rape. I don’t mean to denigrate women who’ve gone through it, and for that matter, some men, but it’s been such an ugly penetrative act on an unwilling victim.”
In a previous interview, officials with the EPA said the agency wants to continue to work with Hennis regarding the use of his land, but they couldn’t comment on particulars of the disagreements.
Hennis claims his lease agreement with the EPA for the use of his land, where the agency has constructed a temporary water-treatment plant, expires Dec. 15. Bitter negotiations to extend the contract have stalled, and he said he doesn’t know what will happen after that date.
“These thugs just went in and took it over, and then told me we’re not going to settle, screw you, we’re on your land, and if you don’t like it, we’ll go to federal court because you’re not cooperating,” he said.
“That’s the same cooperation the Nazis expected from the people getting off the trains.”
Hennis: Spill was intentional
Based in Golden, Hennis is highly involved in what he calls his future retirement – the property he owns north of Silverton, which he estimates is worth a considerable sum. Almost five months since the spill, he is now convinced the EPA intentionally set off the release.
“The EPA planned on creating a Superfund in Silverton for a long time, but was met with local resistance,” he said. “This blowout fit very conveniently into their time frame. They’ve told a fairy tale regarding the circumstance of the spill.”
Not surprisingly, he is adamantly against the Superfund status the town has begun to embrace in recent weeks. The question remains whether he would be considered a “potentially responsible party,” despite the fact he has never mined the land.
Regardless, Hennis believes he is the victim of a mining company’s history of irresponsible practices, and the subsequent intrusion of the EPA, which he prefers to call “the mafia.”
“I would never have thought I would be caught between the fifth-largest gold company in the world that refuses to act like a proper mining company in the 21st century, and a federal agency very reminiscent of what you’d see in early 1940s in Europe,” he said.
Even still, Hennis still speaks optimistically that one-day the region will be mined, because in his view, the country will always be dependent on the need for strategic metals.
“It’s economic suicide for a country to allow what the EPA is doing,” he said. “And the last time I checked, the American Dream included being able to start a business and pursue it. And, ultimately, sow the fruits of that labor.”