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.

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