Local officials travel to D.C. to lobby for Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site funding

On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

From The Durango Herald editorial board:

Good representatives, at every level of government, are willing to go the extra mile.

In mid-June, Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie, La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake and San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier did just that, both literally and figuratively, by traveling to Washington, D.C. with Ty Churchwell of the Durango office of Trout Unlimited.

Armed with letters and messages from counties and town councils, chambers of commerce and other Animas River stakeholders, their aim was to meet with Environment Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt. Their goal: to lobby for priority status and adequate funding for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund project, now in its investigative stages.

Heading east, the four were worried. While Pruitt had announced that Superfund projects – there are 1,300 across the country – would be a top priority of the agency under the Trump administration, the preliminary 2018 federal budget released in March showed a 25 percent cut in funding for the program.

To their chagrin, the first part of the mission failed. Pruitt was out of the country and could not keep his appointment.

But good representatives are by nature persistent. And optimistic. Instead of a meeting with Pruitt, the four met with eight high-ranking EPA officials and were joined via phone by more staff members in Denver intimately familiar with the Bonita Peak listing.

Churchwell came away convinced that the cleanup and mitigation of acid mine drainage contaminating the headwaters of the Animas River is at the top of the agency’s list.

“The response was that Bonita Peak is a stated priority of the EPA,” he said. “We feel confident that the agency is deeply committed.” More proof of that statement is evident in the work now being done. While many Superfund sites sit idle, Churchwell said, the Bonita Peak project is underway.

That Brookie, Blake and Fetchenhier came away convinced as well is due in no small part to the negative publicity generated by the Gold King Mine spill in August, 2015. The EPA’s role in causing the disaster is well known, and the visitors to Washington were not about to let the agency off the hook. As Brookie reminded EPA staff, “You had your hands on the shovel.”

That played into the other message the group wanted to convey, Churchwell added, that this project can be the agency’s “opportunity to shine, and demonstrate how a federal agency can respond and do it right.”

All indications are that the agency agrees.

Before leaving Washington, the four also met with Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton to ask the trio for a coordinated and united show of support for the project.

We are both fortunate and thankful for the efforts made by our local elected officials to ensure the EPA makes good on the promise the Superfund program holds for a restored Animas River watershed.

Thanks also go to Churchwell for organizing and finding the means to fund the journey; no taxpayer money was used for the trip. In return, he would like to see sustained local interest and community oversight of the project. More opportunities to participate arrive next month with a series of informative meetings followed by a tour of the mining district in September.

We should all capitalize on the momentum generated by the visit; find details at http://wearetheanimas.com.

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