Cleaning up closed mines a toxic issue

EPA guidelines lack long-term guarantees, Animas River group says

The Animas River Stakeholders Group wants to eliminate toxic waste from closed mines, but is unclear of its liability when doing so. Water flows from the American Tunnel in the Gladstone area north of Silverton. The group is working on rehabilitating four closed mines in the area. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file

The Animas River Stakeholders Group wants to eliminate toxic waste from closed mines, but is unclear of its liability when doing so. Water flows from the American Tunnel in the Gladstone area north of Silverton. The group is working on rehabilitating four closed mines in the area.

SILVERTON – Even newly revised federal guidelines on long-term liability will keep people from sticking their necks out very far, say participants in efforts to clean up toxic mine waste here.

The comments were made Thursday at a meeting of the Animas River Stakeholders Group. The discussion focused on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency clarification in December of requirements for good Samaritans who attempt to clean up polluted sites. The toxic waste is contaminating creeks and rivers here.

“They offer guidance, but not rules,” Steve Fearn said. “But maybe they will help us get legislative relief.”

Fearn, a mining engineer, is one of three coordinators of the stakeholder group, which was formed in 1994. He also sits on the board of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

The stakeholders meeting came on the eve of a visit Friday by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall to the site of a 2006 spill of mine waste into the Blue River near Breckenridge.

Udall championed the recent EPA clarifications of principles covering the responsibility and risks of outside parties that take on mine-waste remediation.

Udall spoke to the public at the site of the abandoned Iron Springs Mill, where millions of gallons of reddish water broke through a mine tunnel in April 2006 to turn the Blue River a bright orange.

Officials speculated that snow and ice sealing the mine mouth may have given way to a surge of water built up from heavy winter storms.

Udall, D-Colo., cited the some 7,000 abandoned mines in Colorado that threaten safety, water quality and recreation.

“Good Samaritans wanted to clean up mines, but they had to step back because it quickly became obvious that the responsibility they would assume under the Clean Water Act would put them in an untenable position,” Udall said. “So much of their interest and passion went unrequited.”

But the recent EPA memorandum gives them an extended “understanding” with the EPA that they won’t be subject to liability responsibility, Udall said.

He predicted cleanup projects soon would be under way at the Red and Bonita mine near Silverton and similar sites near Breckenridge, Creede and Leadville.

The Red & Bonita is one of four mines that leak up to 800 gallons a minute of heavy metals into Cement Creek, a tributary to the Animas River.

Congress ordered cleanup of toxic sites in 1980 after environmental disasters at Love Canal in New York in the mid-1970s and the Valley of the Drums in Kentucky in 1979.

Private parties, such as the Animas River Stakeholders Group, have carried out a legion of toxic remediation projects since. But they have to be careful because of liability that make them targets of lawsuits.

The EPA last year said it would not move unilaterally to clean up Silverton-area mines, but would work with the stakeholders group.

The EPA guide for good Samaritans issued in 2007 was revised in December to make mine cleanup of private parties less onerous.

But the revised guidelines, which focus on the definitions of “owner” and “operator” as a responsible party don’t pass muster with Animas River stakeholders.

“While the EPA interpretation of the 2007 guidance provides quite a bit of liability protection from the EPA, it is guidance, not regulation or statute, and therefore provides much less protection from a citizen (law)suit,” a stakeholder memorandum said.

Ongoing maintenance of a treated site will require someone to do it, the memorandum said. “It is hard to imagine that anyone doing maintenance is not going to be considered an operator.”

Bruce Stover, director of inactive mine reclamation at the Colorado Division of Mining, Reclamation and Safety, said his agency is discussing issues with the EPA.

Ty Churchwell offered a written reaction to the EPA guidelines from Trout Unlimited. The organization said that holding offenders responsible is common practice, but that those responsible for mine waste in the West tend to be long gone.

“Current owners have little to no incentive because of liability,” the letter said. “Cleaning up the sites is a legal quagmire.”

daler@durangoherald.com