Colorado mountain residents blitzed EPA and state officials with questions about cleanup of inactive mines, deeply mistrustful after the EPA-triggered Gold King disaster yet largely leaning towards a superfund approach to stop contamination of Animas River headwaters.
Nearly 50 gathered for a first public meeting Wednesday night in Silverton after local elected leaders held closed talks exploring possible federal help.
“If we do go down this process. … what assurances do we have that we’ll have funding to go into the remedial phase?” San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay asked, leading off questioning.
“Are we just going to have more and more meetings?… We want to see some action,” Commissioner Ernest Kuhlman asked.
Among life-long residents of the area, contractor John Richardson, 68, a fly fisherman, said he favors a broad multi-basin cleanup. “I wouldn’t mind seeing mining come back, but I want to see it all cleaned up,” he said outside the town hall.
In the talks, the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials and local elected leaders reached agreement on a goal of cleaning up Animas headwaters and that the town of Silverton would not be included in a possible disaster designation to launch a superfund cleanup – a key local demand.
But the EPA and locals disagree as to whether an EPA-run cleanup would include just upper Cement Creek — the local preference — or other basins where acidic, metals-laced drainage from inactive mines drains into the Animas River.
The scope of a National Priority List designation was a big part of the talks, said EPA’s Johanna Miller, regional director of superfund site assessment, in an interview.
“We’re all agreed the town of Silverton would not be included, because that is a soils issue, not a water issue,” Miller said. A broader cleanup, beyond Cement Creek to include the Eureka Basin area just east of Silverton, may be necessary, she said. “Limiting it to one basin might not achieve the water quality improvements.”
While EPA officials favor a broad National Priority List designation, Silverton and San Juan County officials have been raising local concerns such as the potential for truck damage to Silverton’s streets and housing for workers they say the EPA would need to provide. And residents widely are worried about timing. “Do you think the remedial process will happen in our lifetimes?” ski businessman Grady Ham asked in the meeting. Superfund cleanups typically run for decades, limited by congressional funding.
Silverton and San Juan County officials have pressed for a narrow environmental disaster designation, covering only the upper Cement Creek area where the Gold King, Red and Bonita, Mogul and Sunnyside and other inactive mines are located, about seven miles north of Silverton. Gov. John Hickenlooper would have to request any designation — by early February if EPA officials are to consider it for a listing this year.
EPA and CDPHE officials have said it’s too early to discuss details of any remedy because the EPA and CDPHE would have to conduct a remediation investigation and a feasibility study.
The EPA set up a temporary water treatment system near the Gold King and Red and Bonita mines to filter out and neutralize heavy metals in settling ponds.
Whether or not to seek an official environmental disaster designation is a question that vexes residents of Silverton (pop. 500), an icy mountain hamlet beneath dozens of old mines leaking acidic metals-laced waste into creeks, which also contain natural concentrations of minerals. And residents’ ambivalence was clear as they asked about whether property owners could be prosecuted and whether, since the EPA caused the Gold King Disaster, the agency would be charged with running a water treatment plant in perpetuity.
“It looks like we don’t have any other choice” but to seek a federal Superfund cleanup, said Vicky Skow at the Kendall Mountain Cafe. “We need the money to clean up, or people won’t come to town.”
Among those opposed to a Superfund cleanup is Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine and of land near the former town of Gladstone where the EPA has set up the temporary water treatment system.