For roughly two decades, Silverton has rebuffed federal Superfund dollars to clean up the scores of abandoned mines leaching contaminants into its surroundings.
But in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, and under immense pressure from its downstream neighbors, the southwestern Colorado town’s leaders are now leaning toward endorsing the controversial remedy.
“If we want some remediation immediately, we’re going to have to go that way,” said Ernie Kuhlman, chairman of the San Juan County Commission. “I think our downstream partners — Durango, La Plata County and the Indian tribes — want something done immediately.”
The change in heart was tangible last week as Silverton’s elected officials, accompanied by representatives from neighboring communities, spent three days touring four of Colorado’s largest mine Superfund sites.
The weighing of a national hazard priority listing represents a major paradigm shift for the town, which up until the last several weeks had been working to find alternatives to Superfund. In August, Silverton officials sought an unprecedented congressional appropriation but were told it wasn’t viable.
The town has long worried a designation would bring with it negative economic impacts, bureaucratic red tape and stigma. While those fears remain, leaders now say Superfund appears their best — and perhaps only — option…
Visiting Superfund sites
State health officials say last week’s Superfund tour, requested by Silverton’s leaders, was an unusual but important measure to show those wary of the program how well it has worked elsewhere.
Colorado has a handful of Superfund sites in which the EPA has targeted mine pollution for cleanup. They include Leadville, Clear Creek and Gilpin counties, Minturn and a site near Creede.
All four, where work has led to dramatic increases in water quality and aquatic life, were visited by the Silverton group.
“We can talk about Superfund until we are blue in the face,” said Bill Murray, who oversees the EPA’s regional management of the program. “But what they really need to do is talk to people to know what it’s been like.”
While some officials — particularly in Leadville — told the contingency from Silverton that a Superfund designation can bring with it headaches, stakeholders all agreed it is the only option…
The sprawling, 18-square-mile Leadville Superfund project was one of the first to land on EPA’s national priorities list when it was designated in 1983. The initiative centers on efforts to address water and soil contamination.
While Leadville and Lake County leaders told Silverton representatives that Superfund has drastically removed waste, they also complained about disagreements with the agency and how long the EPA’s efforts have taken…
Over Tennessee Pass in the Eagle County town of Minturn, 65 miles of tunnels along the Eagle River turned the winding waterway orange for years until the site was designated Superfund in 1986. In 1991, a water treatment plant was built at the site to siphon the copper, zinc and cadmium leeching from the mine.
Brown trout populations have returned, and water quality has been improving.
“People here are thrilled,” said Willy Powell, Minturn’s interim town manager.
In Idaho Springs, where a treatment plant paid for with Superfund dollars cleans contaminated water, stakeholders said their inclusion on the national priorities list was unpopular but needed.
Clear Creek was soured by heavy metals before EPA remediation efforts began in 1983. The waterway now serves as a drinking source for more than 250,000 in the Denver area.
“We had no other choice,” said Nelson Fugate, a former Clear Creek County commissioner…
Sweetening the deal
The EPA is working to sweeten the Superfund deal for Silverton, agreeing not to include the town within any areas designated in a national priority listing.
State health officials say town leaders would have to endorse Superfund by the end of January for the town to be considered for designation in the spring.
The EPA says preliminary studies of the Upper Animas Mining District have shown it reaches the hazard threshold for a Superfund designation. However, more research would be needed to determine the scope of contamination.
Some in San Juan County complained that the solution is coming before the extent of the problem is known.
“We are being asked to put this on Superfund and be put on the national priorities list,” said Scott Fetchenhier, a San Juan County commissioner. “I want to see some scientific data that says, ‘This is a good idea.’ I think we are putting the chicken before the egg.”[…]
“We have to kind of look at the larger picture for the future,” said Monica Sheets, remediation program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who led the tour. “We’re not going to push this approach on you. We just wanted to show you how this works in other communities.”