SILVERTON, COLO. – Silverton Standard editor Mark Esper said he had just finished lunch on Aug. 5 when he heard an unusual call over the police scanner.
“I hear Sheriff (Bruce) Conrad say on the scanner – ’20-foot wall of orange sludge coming toward Silverton,'” Esper said.
A plume of toxic mine waste burst forth from Gold King Mine and rushed down Cement Creek toward Silverton. It was reduced in size by the time it hit town after smashing into two culverts upstream, which absorbed its power, according to Esper.
“Basically, it looked like spring runoff,” he said. “But as you go upstream, you see how devastating it was.”
Last Monday, Silverton’s road maintenance crew worked to repair the damage to the first culvert. The plume carried tons of debris that slammed into the barrier and washed away part of Colorado Highway 110.
“The EPA pledged to pay for that, of course,” Esper said.
The breach on Aug. 5 affected far more than the upper Animas area, of course – three million gallons of contaminated water poured through the creek and into the Animas River, which feeds into the San Juan through New Mexcio and Utah. It then joins the Colorado River just above Lake Powell. Colorado, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation have declared states of emergency for the affected aeas.
But in the Silverton area, beyond the immediate damage, it may be difficult to separate the deluge from the drip.
Esper said the red rocks in Cement Creek have always been red and life in the creek and the Animas River in that area has always been scarce.
That is because for decades the mines in the Upper Animas district have leaked acidic water laced with various heavy metals into Cement Creek, the result of almost a century of mining in the region.
For decades, state and federal officials have talked about cleaning up the site using federal funds, but have faced opposition from local residents and mining companies.
Changes in attitude
Although many Silverton residents remain skeptical of the Environmental Protection Agency, some say it’s time for a federal cleanup.
“We knew there was a problem at Gladstone (a ghost town near the mine),” said Bev Rich, chairwoman of the San Juan County Historical Society. “And we knew that we needed to deal with it. But we didn’t deal with it.”
Bill Simon, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said state officials began investigating water quality in Cement Creek in 1989 after discovering that aquatic life was nearly nonexistent in the river.
He said after extensive water-quality testing, the EPA was ready to add the entire Upper Animas River watershed to the Superfund National Priorities List by 1994.
The Superfund was created through federal law in 1980 as a way to address abandoned hazardous waste sites that threaten public health or the environment.
The law provides federal funds to the EPA to perform long-term remediation of toxic sites and also seek compensation from parties liable for causing the damage.
The last active operation in the region, Sunnyside Mine, closed in 1991, Simon said, but the mining companies continued to oppose the Superfund designation long after, fearing that they would be held responsible for cleaning up the mine waste.
Simon said many local residents did not support the designation either, fearing it would discourage future mining projects and tourism.
Last Monday, Chairman Ernest Kuhlman of the San Juan County (Colo.) Board of Commissioners explained the town’s attitude toward the Superfund thus: “It retires mining, for one thing, and it retires tourism, for another.”
Kuhlman said he remains skeptical of the Superfund designation, despite the recent spill, but wanted to know the EPA’s plan for the site.
“I want to know what they intend to do about it,” he said. “If it was a private company that did this, they would be tarred and feathered and tied to a stone.”
Rich said the period after the final operation shut down was a difficult one for Silverton residents and the town still has not recovered from the economic impact.
Today, the town’s residents cling to a fragile tourism-based economy.
“It’s barely sustaining us,” Rich said.
Simon said local residents, mine owners and operators, and others opposed to the federal designation formed the Animas River Stakeholders Group in 1994 to retain local control over what water standards were implemented.
Though the Superfund designation was avoided, the threat of litigation had an impact – Sunnyside Gold Corp., a former mine operator, signed a consent decree in 1996 with the state of Colorado to continue to operate a water-treatment plant on Cement Creek and clean up several abandoned mines in the Upper Animas Mining District.
In exchange, Sunnyside Gold Corp. would be allowed to plug the Sunnyside Mine, located near Gold King Mine, and end its clean-up responsibility in the region.
Sunnyside Gold Corp. completed about 17 remediation projects in the Upper Animas Mining District by 1999, according to the stakeholders group’s website.
The corporation installed concrete bulkheads in the Sunnyside Mine between 1996 and 2002, which closed the mine and stopped the discharge of hundreds of gallons of polluted water.
However, Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine and neighboring Mogul Mine, said Tuesday the plug didn’t actually stop the water.
“The Sunnyside water is going by various paths, faults, fissures, etc. and coming out the neighboring mine properties,” Hennis said.
Hennis said that Gold King Mine, until 2003, was discharging 7 gallons of polluted water per minute.
After 2003, Gold King Mine, Red & Bonita Mine and Mogul Mine began discharging hundreds of gallons per minute, according to EPA records.
After a lengthy court battle involving Hennis, Sunnyside Gold Corp. discharged its obligation to maintain the Cement Creek water treatment plant, which was shut down.
Degrading river water
With polluted waters pouring from several mines and no plant to treat it, the water in the upper Animas River began to degrade significantly.
“I have been begging Kinross (current owner of Sunnyside Gold Corp.) to step forward voluntarily and be proactive and address the issues,” Hennis said. “They were trying to get out of any potential liability at a very cheap price.”
Kinross issued a statement on Tuesday. The company described last week’s spill as a “very unfortunate incident,” but denied any involvement.
“Sunnyside mine workings have no physical connection to the Gold King and such a connection never existed,” according to the statement. “Sunnyside is not the cause of the water buildup at Gold King.”
Marcie Bidwell is executive director of the Mountain Studies Institute, a nonprofit environmental research organization that has been involved in monitoring river changes since the discharge.
She said Tuesday it was “very possible” that runoff from Sunnyside Mine escaped through fractures into nearby mines.
Since 2008, Simon said the EPA has talked about a “targeted” Superfund limited to the Upper Animas Mining District. Sunnyside Gold Corp., a member of Animas River Stakeholders Group, offered $6.5 million to address water quality issues in the targeted area.
The catch, according to Simon, was the EPA had to release Sunnyside Mine Corp. from liability.
“The EPA has not really bought off on that,” Simon said. “But the money is still there and the EPA recently requested they do some (remediation work) and pay for it from the $6.5 million fund, which is supposed to have risen to $10 million in that amount of time.”
According to Simon, the EPA has not agreed to release Sunnyside from liability.
Hennis said $10 million is not nearly enough to adequately remediate the mining district.
Simon said that since the Gold King Mine spill, he has reflected on his organization’s previous opposition to the Superfund designation.
“We were dead set against Superfund at the time, but I would not say that is the case now,” Simon said.
Martin Hestmark, assistant regional director for EPA’s Region 8, said Monday that he is talking with stakeholders about solutions, which may include building a new water treatment plant.
He said he does not regret that his agency was not more aggressive in seeking a Superfund designation for the site.
“It’s important that the affected communities be supportive,” he said. “That is an evolving process.”
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, Kathy Green, said the decision is up to the community.
“At this point, (Hickenlooper) plans to continue to work with the EPA and the community on response and recovery for the area, and in addressing other mines in the state,” Green said.
Larry and Cheryl Markwell own the Hungry Moose Bar and Grill in Silverton, which opened a year ago this month.
Both husband and wife described the Gold King Mine spill as a tragedy and said they were open to solutions.
“We have people that fish, canoe and raft (in Silverton),” Larry Markwell said. “If people aren’t in the water, they won’t be coming to eat.”
Cheryl Markwell said the town was plagued by problems, including a housing shortage and expensive utilities.
“This town is full of talk,” Cheryl Markwell said. “It’s a town that needs to act.”