Silverton, San Juan County leaders say ‘Let’s talk Superfund’ — The Durango Herald

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

From The Durango Herald (Ann Butler/Jonathan Romeo):

San Juan County commissioners and Silverton Town Board trustees on Monday voted unanimously to direct city staff members to pursue a Superfund listing with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to clean up leaking, inactive mines north of Silverton.

“We need to do what’s best for the town, the county, the environment and our downstream neighbors,” Silverton Mayor Chris Tookey said after the meeting, “and at this point, it appears (the National Priority List) will provide the most comprehensive cleanup in the shortest time frame.”

Last week, when Silverton officials announced they would propose the motion, it seemed to have unanimous support after they had toured several Superfund sites in Colorado with La Plata County commissioners and Durango city councilors. Part of their decision will be based on a promise from the EPA that the designation would not include the area inside the Silverton town limits.

“We approved staff and our attorney Jeff Robbins to engage in talks,” said Silverton Trustee Pete Maisel, who, along with San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier, will serve as liaisons for the project of requesting a ranking on the Superfund National Priorities List.

The two governmental entities haven’t set any deadlines, and they don’t expect it to be a quick negotiation, he said.

“We’re hoping the Colorado public health department will take the lead on this,” Maisel said…

On Thursday, Silverton officials admitted the EPA’s hazardous cleanup Superfund program has many drawbacks – with uncertainty over funding, the potential for mistakes and inevitable clashing of opinions – but ultimately, they said, it’s the only viable option to improve water quality in the Upper Animas River Basin.

After the Superfund tour two weeks ago, San Juan County commissioners and Silverton Town Board trustees expressed a tangible shift of opinion toward Superfund. The listing has been largely supported by downstream communities.

“Over the last 25 years, (the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) and EPA have learned a lot about how to conduct these cleanups,” Tookey said. “After talking with people in other communities, we feel it is appropriate to engage in conversations with the two agencies about listing.”

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

The decision puts the community closer to clean-up of the scores of abandoned mines that dot its surroundings and have been leaching contaminants into the Animas River watershed for more than a century.

“It’s a big step,” said Pete Maisel, a town trustee. “We are going to get the ball rolling.”

The news comes less than two weeks after representatives from Silverton and San Juan County spent three days touring four of Colorado’s largest mine Superfund sites as part of a fact-finding mission.

Leaders say the tour helped them decide to start working toward implementing Superfund.

Maisel and county Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier were elected to represent the Silverton community in talks with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment…

“We’ve done a lot of research, and it appears at this time that the national priorities list is the best way to get these mines cleaned up quickly,” Ernie Kuhlman, chairman of the San Juan County board of commissioners, said in a statement. “All of us — Silverton, San Juan and our downstream neighbors — want something done immediately.”

“We have a lot of hard conversations ahead of us about what this all will look like,” he added. “We want those talks to start as soon as possible.”

From the Associated Press via the Farmington Daily Times:

Silverton and San Juan County leaders voted unanimously Monday to direct city staff members to pursue a Superfund designation with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The tourism-dependent community has been wary of seeking a Superfund designation for nearly two decades, fearing stigma and red tape. Officials say a tour of four Superfund sites this month changed their minds, showing them that the process could be difficult but successful.

Silverton Mayor Chris Tookey told The Durango Herald that it appears that route would provide the most comprehensive cleanup in the shortest amount of time.

“We need to do what’s best for the town, the county, the environment and our downstream neighbors,” Tookey said after the vote.

A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 -- photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

New-found attention to #AnimasRiver health called ‘silver lining’

A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 -- photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Not wanting to let attention waiver on the need to improve water quality in the Animas River watershed, key stakeholders on Sunday held an informational open house at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

“If there is a silver lining, it’s that now there is all this awareness concerning the health of the river,” said Ann Oliver of the Animas Watershed Partnership.

Oliver’s concentration has been monitoring the lower Animas, near the Colorado-New Mexico border. There, she told interested participants that the water is less affected by acid mine drainage. Instead, high levels of E. coli and other potentially dangerous nutrients pollute the river.

“It’s not as visible an issue,” she said. “It doesn’t color the water. It’s not coming from a specific point source. So it’s hard to say, ‘Let’s fix this.’ But it’s an issue we need to keep working on.”

Priscilla Sherman has been in Durango full-time for eight years, but has lived in and around the area since 1972. She was well-aware of mine contamination before the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine blowout.

“I used to hike all around Silverton, and for years wondered what the heck was coming out,” she said. “I’ve been very interested in the health and future of the Animas River, and I’ve become more knowledgeable with real facts. I’m really happy to see there continues to be a movement to be proactive in the cleanup.”

A major step in that direction is the push from the San Juan Clean Water Coalition to provide stronger legal protection for local groups that look to address mine drainage, known as the good Samaritan law.

“The question now is what to do post-spill,” said Ty Churchwell, a campaign coordinator for the coalition and coordinator for Trout Unlimited. He added that a good Samaritan law would offer an alternative to a Superfund listing.

However, Kristine Johnson, a member of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, took her Sunday afternoon to seek answers why stakeholders are opposed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup program.

“I’d like to know who are all the members (of the Animas River Stakeholders Group) and why they’re so reluctant to do Superfund,” Johnson said. “I realized two years ago the Stakeholders’ mission was to stave off Superfund, and it’s very unclear why.”

Mining industry backs ‘Good Samaritan’ fix for Gold King — The Colorado Statesman

Summitville Mine superfund site
Summitville Mine superfund site

From The Colorado Statesman (David O. Williams):

Mention the practice of re-mining to anyone familiar with Colorado mining history, and the specter of the 1990’s Summitville disaster — dwarfing last summer’s Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River — is likely to loom large.

Taxpayers have doled out more than $150 million to try to clean up the mess left by a Canadian company that declared bankruptcy in 1992 after it dug up old mine works in the San Juan Mountains near Del Norte and piled them into a cyanide heap leach to extract gold, silver and copper.

But once the company pulled the plug, acid mine drainage made its way downstream, where it killed off a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River. Colorado and federal regulators had to scramble to keep the situation from becoming even worse.

Re-mining, or going back in to recover minerals from old, abandoned mines, is now being mentioned as a possible means of getting modern mining companies to help clean up the toxic drainage from thousands of old, abandoned hardrock mines contaminating streams across the West – like the Gold King Mine near Silverton.

“Yes, I support [re-mining] as long as it’s done in a safe and responsible manner,” U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, recently told The Colorado Statesman. Lamborn last month introduced the Locatable Minerals Claim Location and Maintenance Fees Act to “incentivize private sector actors to remediate abandoned mine lands.”

Under Lamborn’s bill, so-called “Good Samaritan” permits would provide limited liability protections for non-profit groups, local governments and the mining industry to clean up abandoned mines. Under current law, Lamborn says the most qualified parties for cleanup efforts are “scared away” by the possibility of assuming 100-percent liability for old mine sites.

Re-mining is floated as a way to incentivize and help pay for cleaning up old mines, but some environmental groups balk at the idea of letting modern mining companies take on old mine messes because of the possibility of making things worse.

“That’s why we wrote the bill so that if you act in a grossly negligent or even willfully negligent way, you still have huge liability, so only people who are using good-faith efforts are able to be exempt from liability,” Lamborn said. “Anyone else who’s a bad actor is not let off the hook.”

Lauren Pagel, policy director of the nonprofit environmental group Earthworks, testified last month before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment that the mining industry cannot be allowed to call the shots with Good Samaritan cleanup legislation.

“If a ‘Good Sam’ version passes that the mining industry favors, it would allow a private entity to create an Animas [River]-type spill, and exempt the polluting party from responsibility for their mistake or from compensating damaged communities downstream,” Pagel said.

But Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said Good Samaritan legislation will remove the disincentives to private-sector cleanups of abandoned mines, which include perpetual liability under the Clean Water Act and operator status under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA — the law overarching EPA Superfund.

“Public sector and EPA cleanups will continue, but to the extent that private-sector mining companies are allowed to participate, there is no harm in allowing those companies to help defray costs through the removal of any minerals they may be able to extract,” Sanderson said.

Doug Young, senior policy director of the Keystone Policy Center, a nonprofit conflict-resolution organization based in Keystone, is working is help draft Good Samaritan legislation that works for everyone. He told the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment he’s been working on the issue for 20 years and hopes to avoid the usual pitfalls.

“There are folks who are nervous about the idea of re-mining, because it could be a loophole that could be abused, meaning people go in and the cleanup is secondary to recovering minerals,” Young told The Statesman, adding that cleanup has to come first. “We don’t want more Summitvilles or more Gold King Mines. There’s a way you can craft it to be careful about that.”

Good Sam sans mining reform

Pagel argues the EPA already has a process called an Administrative Order of Consent that removes liability for groups truly interested in cleaning up old mines. What’s really needed, in her opinion, is reform of the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, which does not require royalties for mining hardrock minerals on public lands. Such a pool of money could be used for cleanup of the thousands of abandoned mines leaching into streams around the West.

“The only way to begin to address the pollution associated with old mine sites is to create a robust Hardrock Mine Reclamation Fund — similar to the fund that was created in the 1970s for the coal mining industry,” Pagel testified.

Lamborn, however, says mining reform is a non-starter in a Congress controlled by his party, primarily because it will kill mining projects and jobs.

“[Earthworks’] approach to reforming the mining act is never going to happen, so they’re chasing a pipe dream — plus it’s a totally different subject anyway,” Lamborm said. “To obtain a global solution is simply beyond what can be accomplished right now, so some people are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet last week joined New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, all Democrats, introducing the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015, which would reform the mining act to charge royalties and create a cleanup fund.

But Young, who worked on Good Samaritan legislation for years for Tom Udall’s cousin, former Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, says mining reform is too tough a fight in the current congressional gridlock.

“If you create a program of Good Samaritan and deal with the liability, the funding will come without having to do a frontal, uphill political battle of either amending the 1872 Mining Law or proposing other fees and royalty funding provisions,” Young said, adding there are 30 watershed groups in Colorado focused primarily on abandoned mine drainage.

Superfund tour through Colorado paints positive picture — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

It was a long, difficult road as the community of Leadville went through a more-than-20-year process through the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup Superfund program. But local government officials here on Thursday told a large constituency of Southwest Coloradoans that, ultimately, it was worth it.

Various agencies from the Animas River watershed are on a three-day tour of several Superfund sites in Colorado, hoping to gain knowledge on the process as stakeholders look to make a decision about long-term water treatment in the Animas basin.

The situation in Leadville, in many ways, has a striking similarity with the leaking mine network north of Silverton – with its long mining history, relative isolation and fragile economy…

But after more than a century of unregulated mining in Leadville, a two-hour drive west of Denver, an adit suffered a blowout, causing a die-off along the Arkansas River down to Pueblo. In 1983, Leadville was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list, just a few years after the program was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the town was officially taken off the National Priorities List. After the many battles between local, state and federal agencies, local officials there said it left a bittersweet feeling throughout the community.

“In the beginning, it definitely had an impact on our economic development,” said Howard Tritz, an assessor at the time. “It was a real obstacle. But the stigma of being a Superfund site has pretty much blown away; people are starting to come back here. It was bittersweet.”[…]

Melissa Sheets, a reclamation project manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said this week’s tour, which includes a number of stakeholders, is a sign the agencies have learned from past mistakes in dealing with local communities.

“I think we’re learning as Superfund grows up,” Sheets said. “Unfortunately for this community (Leadville), they got the Superfund designation when this program was brand new, so I think they got a lot of the bumps in the road. This outreach we’re doing is absolutely unprecedented. We’re trying to make sure everyone has an opportunity for input.”

After visiting Leadville, the group went to Minturn’s Eagle Mine Superfund site, where residents said there really was no other option beside Superfund.

“There’s always some tension and disagreement as to what cleanup measures are going to be most effective,” said Bob Weaver of Leonard Rich Engineering. “But it’s really important to realize everybody wants to achieve the same goal. You’re not always going to agree, but it’s a lot better than doing nothing.

Representatives from the Animas River were sure to point out the many differences between Leadville and Minturn, ranging from potentially responsible parties to differences in geology. But San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman said overall it’s been a productive trip.

“I’ve learned a hell of a lot,” he said. “Anything we’re going to get is from working together. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said seeing the actual physical implementation of Superfund helped push the decision-making process…

Leadville Mayor Jaime Stuever offered one last bit of advice for the group before a tour of the California Gulch Superfund site.

“We live in an environment in today’s world were we have problems,” he said. “If you look at how many years mining took place here, you realize it takes a long time to clean up a mess that’s been here many, many years. How could we have done it ourselves? We couldn’t have done it ourselves.”

Superfund site tour for SW Colorado officials starts today

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

The small 600-person town of Silverton is doing some soul-searching after an EPA-triggered spill of 3 million gallons of orange wastewater last summer.

The question is how to limit hundreds of other abandoned mines from negatively impacting rivers and streams in southwestern Colorado.

Proposed Good Samaritan legislation has been floated as one possible solution, although some mines in the area are seen as too complex to be addressed by this fix.

Outside the area, the answer might seem simpler: pursue a National Priorities Listing under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund site program.

San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman says that the county is going to become “more knowledgeable about Superfund.” Local leaders are planning on a fact-finding mission Nov. 9-13 to visit other towns like Leadville and Idaho Springs that have handled clean-ups through a National Priorities Listing.

But there’s a history with this issue in Silverton.

In 2012, the EPA dropped a listing bid lacking support from town and county leaders, reported the Silverton Standard…

…Mark Esper, editor and publisher of the Silverton Standard, wrote an editorial after the spill to encourage town leaders to pursue a Superfund priority listing. He says the town already has a stigma after 3 million gallons of orange wastewater from the Gold King Mine polluted the Animas River.

“We have to address the problem. By looking like we’re dragging our feet–that’s the real bad publicity that we’re getting right now,” he said. “I think we have to face the reality that this has affected everyone from here to Lake Powell,” said Esper.

Town leaders like San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman do say there has been a shift in mindset.

Walk around town and the conversations about Superfund status are wide-ranging and opinions are strong. Some are sharply in favor the idea. Others are dismissive of the plan. A small minority believe that the EPA intentionally caused the Gold King Mine spill.

DeAnne Gallegos with Silverton’s Chamber of Commerce said since the spill, trust of the EPA is low.

“Trust is a key word. But trust is not purchased, nor guaranteed, it is earned,” she said.

To that end, Silverton and San Juan County leaders will continue to discuss the issue with EPA officials. The agency recently responded to a detailed list of 16 questions about the Superfund listing process and its impact.

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Pueblo Chieftain:

With inactive mines bleeding millions of gallons of acidic wastewater into Southwestern Colorado rivers every year, officials are touring Superfund sites around the state this week to see if the federal cleanup program is the best way to heal the damage.

A 3-million-gallon spill from the Gold King Mine on Aug. 5 intensified a years-long debate over how best to clean up that mine and hundreds like it in the San Juan Mountains north of Silverton.

An Environmental Protection Agency crew inadvertently triggered the spill, unleashing water tainted with heavy metals into Colorado, New Mexico and Utah rivers. The Southern Ute Reservation and the Navajo Nation were also affected.

The three-day tour of Superfund sites is set to start today and includes mining-related cleanup projects in Creede, Leadville, Minturn and Idaho Springs. Officials from Silverton and surrounding San Juan County are participating, along with others from adjacent La Plata County and the Southern Utes. State and EPA officials will also go along.

Officials will see cleanup projects firsthand and talk to residents about the impact that Superfund had on their communities.

The EPA says it first considered a Superfund designation for the mines north of Silverton in the 1990s but twice backed off because local cleanup efforts were underway and residents had concerns about EPA involvement.

Many residents say they want the mines to be cleaned up but need more answers before agreeing to a Superfund project, including how soon money would be available.

“It needs to be started right away,” Silverton Town Administrator Bill Gardner said.

Residents worry that a Superfund listing would lower property values, make banks reluctant to lend and send an influx of workers into tiny Silverton, which already has trouble housing workers for its all-important tourism business.

But after the Gold King spill, fewer people are worried that a Superfund listing will hurt tourism, said Mark Esper, editor of the Silverton Standard newspaper.

“It made a lot of news, and finally we’re getting something done,” he said.

The EPA has said it won’t proceed with a Superfund designation without support from Gov. John Hickenlooper. The governor says he won’t press such a cleanup unless area residents and officials want it.

State officials have been talking with residents about the implications of a Superfund listing. Hickenlooper said he takes all the concerns seriously and state officials should address each one.

He was noncommittal on whether Superfund is the best approach but said it has worked well elsewhere in Colorado. Others see few alternatives.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romero):

Officials from La Plata County, the San Juan Basin Health Department, San Juan County, Silverton, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency will begin their outing Wednesday at the Nelson Tunnel Superfund site in Creede.

From there, the group will visit the California Gulch Superfund site in Leadville and the Eagle Mine site in Gilman-Minturn on Thursday, and end its tour Friday, visiting the Clear Creek-Central City Superfund site in Idaho Springs.

“We’ve heard conceptually how it works. Now, lets see how it works on the ground,” said La Plata County Manager Joe Kerby.

All along the way, local officials will be able to meet with leaders in respective towns to discuss their area’s experience with the EPA’s hazardous cleanup designation and how it’s affected their towns.

House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment hearing recap

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Mining-reclamation experts this week told a congressional panel that good Samaritan legislation and funding for restoration efforts are “inseparably tied together.”

The comments came during a hearing Wednesday on good Samaritan cleanups of abandoned mines, held by the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment…

In the wake of the Gold King incident, Congress has taken a look at how to address tens of thousands of inactive leaking mines across the nation. At least 23,000 mines have been identified in Colorado alone.

The debate has hit familiar political currents, with Republicans pushing back against efforts to collect fees and royalties from hard-rock mining to fund restoration efforts. Instead, the GOP favors legislative efforts to eliminate liability concerns for private entities – referred to as good Samaritans – who want to independently restore inactive mines…

“The lesson from Gold King is not so much that an EPA contractor screwed up, as it is that we need to have a much greater sense of urgency about addressing the problem of pollution from abandoned mines all across the nation,” said Chris Wood, president and chief executive of Trout Unlimited.

Republicans on the committee pushed back, highlighting that good Samaritan legislation might be the only pragmatic thing to consider.

“Would you prefer having no cleanup be performed at an abandoned mine site, or having a good Samaritan perform a cleanup?” asked Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana.

Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks, said it is not an either/or conversation.

“I would hope we could also get good Samaritans additional funding from reclamation funds to do these cleanups,” Pagel said.

Doug Young, senior policy director for the Keystone Policy Center in Colorado, cautioned against repeating the same discussions from the past, encouraging lawmakers to steer away from addressing the issue through the Clean Water Act.

Instead, Young suggested taking a look at reforms to the federal Superfund program, which targets blighted areas. He also advocated for offering incentives to good Samaritans to bring their own resources.

“I agree this is a major funding issue,” Young said. “I just think there’s a way we can do this without directly having to assess a fee or royalty.”

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site update: Comments sought for decommission plan

From The Pueblo Chieftain:

Public comment is being sought on a Quality Assurance Project Plan designed to help health officials oversee decommissioning of the Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill.

The plan establishes the requirements for environmental data collection. It can be viewed at

State health officials will be accepting informal public comments until Nov. 13. Submit comments to Jennifer Opila at