For two decades, the local Animas River Stakeholder Group drove efforts to deal with acid metals draining from the hundreds of mines drilled into mountains above Silverton. And the EPA-triggered Aug. 5 Gold King disaster prompted formation of more groups motivated to clean the river and restore riparian habitat.
But with the EPA launching a federal bureaucratic process, locals are asking how, if at all, they will fit. Residents want a role beyond sitting at meetings.
“It definitely has taken the wind out of our sails,” stakeholder group coordinator Peter Butler said. “It’s unclear what the Animas River Stakeholder Group’s future will be.”
This jumble of inactive mines ranks among the worst in the West, draining more than 1,000 gallons a minute of arsenic, cadmium, zinc, lead and other contaminants into streams.
The locals hired mining engineers and identified major polluters, tested soil and water at 160 mines, and began to route water away from exposed minerals.
But the job is huge, and locals, even with the state and federal support they received, hit limits.
Butler said they “ran out of steam” due to high costs of plugging mines and treating water and liability under the Clean Water Act for projects that only partially reduce pollution — a legal catch Congress has not addressed.
An EPA takeover means more federal funding may be available.
The issue is whether momentum, buy-in and funding for grassroots stewardship will suffer.
At a recent EPA briefing on the Superfund process, San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay asked about the role for locals.
EPA officials say they want to include residents and propose creating a Community Advisory Group that the EPA could use for communication and dialogue.
“I certainly appreciate the opportunity to learn from all the information they have,” EPA project manager Rebecca Thomas said. “There are a lot of different stakeholder groups. We’re looking forward to working with all of them.”
At other mining Superfund sites — around Leadville, Central City and Creede — the EPA established advisory groups. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials, who work with the EPA, embrace this approach.
“We’ve learned it’s better to get people involved on the front end. It makes for a smoother process,” CDPHE Superfund unit leader Doug Jamison said in an interview.
Yet mistrust of the EPA runs deep in Silverton — all the deeper because it was an EPA-contractor crew that botched work at the Gold King, triggering the 3 million-gallon blowout that turned the Animas mustard-yellow…
When the last mine closed in 1991 (the Sunnyside), old-timers couldn’t accept falling behind. They resisted an EPA-run cleanup, dreading federal control, and hoped for a mining revival.
That has changed after the Gold King disaster. More residents are involved, demanding cleanup, launching new projects that build on work done by the Animas stakeholders and conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited. At the recent meeting, Silverton town manager Bill Gardner challenged EPA assurances that sufficient federal funds are available and said he wants the EPA to make sure research scientists are involved in developing solutions at mines.
A new Animas River Community Forum has drawn on expertise at Fort Lewis College in Durango. San Juan Basin Health officials recently installed one of the nation’s most-advanced river monitoring systems on the Animas. Sensors in the river send acidity, turbidity and metals information every 15 minutes that local officials can monitor on computers.
“We have a lot more attention to the health of our watershed than we’ve had for a long time, maybe ever. We have a lot more focus on getting things done since the river turned orange,” county health spokesman Brian Devine said…
Superfund cleanups are slow and can last decades.
“We’re all going to die before this thing’s over,” [Marcie Bidwell] said.
“But this is a great opportunity for the EPA to innovate in how they go about the process of involving communities.”