Connecting state and local government leaders
Local official: “We’re thinking big here; we’re not thinking small, because this is a problem that America has, period.”
Members of Congress last week ramped up pressure on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its role in the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine blowout in Colorado, but state and local officials used the opportunity to call for long-term federal funding for cleanup of abandoned mines.
Dean Brookie, the mayor of Durango, Colorado, told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that he wanted EPA officials held accountable for the accidental release of 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage but that an equivalent amount was flowing into the Animas River every week before the blowout and has continued to do so every week since.
“The Aug. 5 mine waste release into the Animas River put a Technicolor spotlight on the massive and complex, century-old problem that our communities have lacked the resources to address,” said Brookie, whose college and ski town of 18,000 people is 50 miles downriver from the abandoned Gold King Mine in Silverton.
“Since its founding our community has depended on the virtues of the natural environment as its lifeblood,” Brookie added. “Our mining heritage is important, but our current economy is not dependent on mining, rather on our mining history, outdoor recreation, the arts and other natural and cultural amenities.”
Speaking at a hearing called “Holding EPA Accountable for Polluting Western Waters,” Brookie urged Congress to move past blaming one federal agency or individuals within that agency and to take action on legislation that can provide steady funding for cleanup of thousands of toxic hardrock mines all over the West that are seeping into mountain and desert streams and rivers.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Silverton Town Administrator Bill Gardner, who called ongoing discussion of lawsuits against the EPA by impacted states and the Navajo Nation “the last thing we want to get into.”
“This is the time to bring science, engineering, policymakers, politics and funding together, because we think we could be a perfect scientific and engineering site center not only for the rest of Colorado but also the Intermountain West,” Gardner told Route Fifty in a recent interview. “We’re thinking big here; we’re not thinking small, because this is a problem that America has, period.”
Silverton, a tiny ski town of 630 people situated at 9,300 feet in the scenic San Juan Mountains, long balked at an EPA Superfund designation and listing on the National Priority List (NPL) for environmental cleanup, in part because residents feared the stigma would hurt tourism.
Now local officials are pushing for immediate federal disaster relief and then long-term funding that could pay for a water treatment facility near the Gold King Mine, which is still releasing between 500 and 600 gallons of mineral-tainted water per minute into Cement Creek and then the upper Animas River. Several other nearby abandoned mines are also contributing to the flow.
Officials for the EPA, which has already spent about $8 million remediating the Gold King Mine toxic discharge situation before and after the blowout, say the agency needs local support before moving to place Silverton on the NPL in order to free up more federal money.
They point to Superfund success stories in highly popular winter sports and summer tourism areas such as Vail and Leadville, where water treatment facilities have been handling mining waste and cleaning up local rivers and streams for decades without impacting skier visits or camping, boating, fishing, hiking and biking traffic in the summer months. Silverton and San Juan County officials now seem to be seeing the light on Superfund listing.
“We are not interested in playing the blame game . . . this community owns the problem and is committed to working with everyone,” Silverton Mayor Christine Tookey and San Juan County Commission Chairman Ernie Kuhlman wrote in a joint letter last month requesting federal disaster relief.
“At the same time, we want to work with all our downstream partners on a longer-term solution. All options are on the table, including EPA and Superfund,” they added. “We have not foreclosed any options.”
A spokeswoman for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the governor would consider making an EPA Superfund listing request if local officials and residents support such an action, and other state officials acknowledge that may be the only way to solve the problem. A water treatment facility could cost up to $20 million to build and $1 million a year to operate.
“Generally, we favor listing a site that meets the criteria for listing and that will benefit from the Superfund process,” said Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesman Mark Salley. “We believe, however, that community support for listing a site is important and the potential listing may raise a number of concerns within the local community.”
Another reason Silverton balked at NPL funding, according to Gardner, was the feeling that it wouldn’t be a silver bullet because the Superfund Trust Fund ran out of a consistent revenue source more than a decade ago when Congress ended the “Polluter Pays” tax on petroleum and chemical imports in 1995.
Since 2003, Superfund cleanups not handled by the private parties originally responsible for the waste have been paid for by Congress from its general fund. The Government Accountability Office in 2010 detailed looming EPA Superfund shortfalls.
At this week’s congressional hearing, Mathy Stanislaus, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, pointed to the administration’s 2016 budget proposal for the creation of Abandoned Mines Lands (AML) Program for the cleanup of hardrock mines.
“The program would be funded through a new AML fee, which would hold the hardrock mining industry responsible for the remediation of abandoned hardrock mines, just as the coal mining industry pays to reclaim abandoned coal mines,” Stanislaus said.
The EPA also supports reinstatement of the “Polluter Pays” tax, which has been proposed by
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenaur of Oregon. U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona has proposed
reforming the 1872 Mining Reform Act by charging royalties for hardrock mining on public lands and creating a fund for the cleanup of abandoned mines.
David O. Williams is a journalist based in Avon, Colorado.