This time last year, the Environmental Protection Agency, having breached the portal of the Gold King Mine on Aug. 5, 2015, was still the target of public lashing for the release of 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into the Animas River.
Yet nearly a year ago to the day, officials from Durango, La Plata County, Silverton and San Juan County were on a tour of Superfund sites around Colorado – an event many note as the turning point in the conversations surrounding listing the mines around Silverton as a Superfund site.
And on Monday, at an EPA-hosted public hearing to update the community of Silverton on the workings of the Superfund site, local officials noted the complete 180-degree turn on the tone of conversations.
“After working with this group, it’s been beneficial,” said San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman, who historically opposed to a Superfund listing. “We’ve learned a lot from it. They are working with us, and we appreciate having a seat at the table.”
San Juan County Administrator Willy Tookey, too, heaped praise on the EPA for reimbursing the more than $349,000 the county spent in response to the spill, as well as contributing to the local economy.
Tookey said the EPA has populated local hotels and restaurants, as well as hired local firms whenever possible. He estimated EPA crews, as well as other federal agencies, spent a total of 775 nights in Silverton hotels.
“So far, it’s been a pleasant experience,” Tookey said. “Its been a real pleasure to work with the folks from the EPA.”
For most of the two hour-plus meeting, EPA officials listed numerous actions taken over the summer in the Animas watershed, as it addresses 48 mining sites contributing to degraded water quality.
EPA officials, in partnership with multiple agencies, said they completed an extensive evaluation of the Animas River Basin, information they will take into the winter months to draft a more complete plan for cleanup.
Other tasks taken over the summer included minor work at the Brooklyn Mine and installation of two meteorological stations, a precipitation gauge and a full weather station around the Superfund site.
The EPA and Bureau of Land Management also installed four groundwater wells at the Kittimack tailings between Howardsville and Eureka to establish the depth of the water table and define groundwater flows.
And the EPA’s Rebecca Thomas said the agency will consider future expansion of the temporary water-treatment plant to treat mine waste from adjacent mines of the Gold King, namely the Red & Bonita, Mogul and American Tunnel.
“(It being so close) we owe it to ourselves to evaluate treating that water,” Thomas said.
In addition, lesser-known actions were discussed: testing to see if dust kicked up from ATVs could potentially be harmful to human health, or if plants in the basin, used by Native American tribes for medicinal purposes, could have adverse health impacts.
Thomas said an estimated 4 million gallons of mine waste discharge into the Animas watershed every day, and the agency will prioritize the major contributors, as well as look for lower hanging fruit for cleanup actions.
“It is going to be a long-term project,” Thomas said. “We are going to be here for years and years.”