Here’s Part I of The Durango Herald’s series on cleaning up Cement Creek written by (Chase Olivarius-Mcallister). Click here for the photo gallery. Here’s an excerpt:
At Red and Bonita Mine, the mountain opens like a wound, oozing a sticky, white, webbed lattice over red ground. There, especially after heavy rains, toxic amounts of metal gush out from within the mountain and bleed into Cement Creek. Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group and chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, said Cement Creek is one of the largest untreated mine drainages in the state of Colorado…
Like all great earthly calamities, the environmental problem posed by Cement Creek – daunting, scientific and indifferent to protest – becomes human – legal, social, financial and technological – as soon as the focus moves to solutions. In this three-day series, The Durango Herald explores what has been done about this environmental hazard, possible ways forward, and what cleaning up Cement Creek might mean to Silverton, town motto: “The mining town that never quit.”[...]
For much of the 1990s, scientists took heart that the metals flowing into the Animas from Cement Creek were diluted by the time the water reached Bakers Bridge, a swimming hole for daredevils about 15 miles upriver of Durango. But between 2005 and 2010, 3 out of 4 of the fish species that lived in the Upper Animas River beneath Silverton died. According to studies by the USGS, both the volume of insects and the number of bug species have plummeted. And starting in 2006, the level of pollution has overwhelmed even the old bellwether at Bakers Bridge: USGS scientists now find the water that flows under Bakers Bridge carries concentrations of zinc that are toxic to animal life.
Bill Simon, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said cleaning up the environmental damage wrought by mining remains the unfinished business of previous centuries. “Getting anyone to pay is notoriously difficult,” he said. He noted that without robust regulation, it was common practice from the 1870s on for mining companies to take what they could and then go broke, abscond or incestuously merge with other mining entities, leaving the future to foot the bill…
What keeps them working together? Simon, a longtime coordinator of the stakeholders group, said, “There is this overwhelming feeling: Let’s spend the money on the ground rather than in litigation.”[...]
For a while, it appeared that the stakeholders’ collaborative effort to clean up Cement Creek was working: After Sunnyside Gold Corp. stoppered American Tunnel with the first of three massive concrete bulkheads in 1996, declining water flow from the site meant less metal pollution in Cement Creek. But Butler said that in 2004, the bulkheads stopped functioning like a cork in a wine bottle. Instead, they started working like a plug in a bathtub: Water, prevented from exiting the mountain through American Tunnel, rose up within the mountain until it reached other drainage points, namely, the Red and Bonita, Gold King and Mogul mines. Since then, Butler said, data shows that most metal concentrations in Cement Creek have “easily doubled” their pre-bulkhead amounts. He said as a result, the recent environmental damage done to the Animas has far outpaced gains made in other stakeholders group cleanup efforts, like the remediation of Mineral Creek, another Animas River tributary…
Though federal budget cuts have seriously diminished the EPA and gutted its Superfund monies, the EPA says the mine drainage in Silverton has gotten so bad it may yet pursue a Superfund listing. And without federal intervention, even stalwarts of the Animas River Stakeholders Group say it’s not clear there will ever be enough money to clean up Cement Creek.
Here’s Part II. Here’s an excerpt:
According to Bill Simon, a co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, an organization that has tried since 1994 to ensure the Animas River’s water quality, the science behind the cleanup is comparatively simple: A limestone water-treatment plant would do the trick. The catch with this technology, he said, is that it’s expensive. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates it would cost between $12 million to $17 million to build and $1 million a year to run – in perpetuity.
Sunnyside Gold Corp. was the last mining company to operate in Silverton. Bought in 2003 by Kinross Gold Corp., an international mining conglomerate that generated billions in revenue last year, Sunnyside denies all liability for cleaning up Cement Creek. Sunnyside officials argue the state released it from liability in an agreement that partly depended on its building the American Tunnel bulkheads. These are the same bulkheads that, according to government scientists, are causing unprecedented amounts of metal to leak from mines higher up the mountain and flow into Cement Creek. The toxic cargo in turn flows into the Animas River.
Larry Perino, Sunnyside’s representative in Silverton, said the company has offered the EPA a $6.5 million settlement – an offer the EPA is mulling. In return for the money, Perino said Sunnyside is merely asking the EPA to reiterate that it is not liable for all damage going forward…
If Sunnyside wants the EPA to release it from liability, at $6.5 million the EPA probably isn’t biting.
“$6.5 million is a starting point,” said Mike Holmes, the EPA’s Denver-based remedial project manager for Region 8, which includes Silverton. The EPA could turn to the Superfund, a designation that gives the agency broad powers to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances and force responsible parties to pay for the cleanup.
Perino said Sunnyside vehemently opposes Cement Creek becoming a Superfund site, noting the people of Silverton oppose it, and that the designation likely would undermine Silverton’s economy and Sunnyside’s collaborative work with the Animas River Stakeholders.
Peggy Linn, the EPA’s Region 8 community involvement coordinator, said if Silverton would support the EPA designating upper Cement Creek a Superfund site, making it easier for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to sign off on the designation, the agency might have a limestone water-treatment plant up and running within five years…
And using about $8 million from government grants and in-kind donations, the group has managed significant environmental progress, including the cleanup of Mineral Creek. It has also lobbied U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton to push Congress for good Samaritan legislation. This would protect “vigilante” environmentalists from taking on liability for the sites they try to reclaim.
During Animas River Stakeholders meetings, there is a lot more talk about exciting emerging technologies that might address the mine drainage into Cement Creek cheaply than there is hot talk about holding Sunnyside’s feet to the fire.
An exception is Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine, who places the blame on Sunnyside and who is frustrated by others’ complacency on the subject. Metals draining out of Gold King Mine have increased tremendously since Sunnyside placed bulkheads into the American Tunnel. During a recent stakeholders meeting in Silverton Town Hall, Hennis lambasted the environmental record of Kinross Gold Corp., the mining conglomerate that owns Sunnyside. He said the only solution was for Sunnyside to remove the bulkheads from American Tunnel and pay for Cement Creek’s cleanup…
Asked how personal tensions with Hennis were affecting the Animas River Stakeholders, co-coordinator Simon acknowledged, “we’ve all had our problems with Todd.” He said he did not like discussing it. “I think when Todd enters it, the conversation becomes kind of cheap and trite. We’ve all committed our lives to this thing.”
More Animas River watershed coverage here and here.