DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday recommended a Superfund listing in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, ending more than six months of discussions on whether the state should pursue the designation for mine cleanup.
Since an estimated 3 million gallons of old mining sludge turned the Animas River orange on Aug. 5, there have been renewed cries for a federal blighted listing. The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged fault in the spill, further complicating discussions.
With the governor’s letter – a monumental step in the process – there is an increased likelihood that a federal designation will be finalized. The EPA generally won’t list a site without a governor’s support letter.
A listing would allow for an injection of federal funds to complete reclamation efforts at as many as 50 sites in the Gladstone area that have contaminated the Upper Animas, Mineral Creek and Cement Creek, for more than a century.
State and federal water officials have largely been in agreement that a permanent water-treatment facility would be the best way to remediate leaking mines in the area.
The Animas River tested for initial spikes in heavy metals following the spill, including cadmium, copper, lead and mercury.
“Superfund sites are no fun,” Hickenlooper said Monday. “It’s a difficult, arduous process, but it can deal with an environmental process of this scale.”
The recommendation comes after local governments, including Silverton and San Juan County, voted earlier this month to support the designation.
Some local officials experienced an evolution on the subject, having opposed the designation in the past. Critics of the listing raised fears that the designation would leave a black eye on the tourist-driven communities.
But after touring other Superfund sites that recovered following designations, and given the immediate health concerns associated with leaking mines, officials came around to support the listing as the best option.
Concerns linger, however, including how to guarantee a voice for local governments and ensuring that boundaries of the proposed Superfund site don’t expand. There’s also fear around blocking access to prized backcountry.
“We will be on a tag team to make sure we have seats at the table and that we’re monitoring every step of the way,” Hickenlooper said.
San Juan County Administrator William Tookey added: “We negotiated with the EPA for months over dozens of issues, and believe we were able to strike the best agreement possible.
“The governor’s letter to the EPA is the end of one process and the start of a much longer one,” Tookey continued. “We will be working with the governor, his staff and members of the congressional delegation every step of the way as we move forward.”
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency received the governor’s letter.
“With the concurrence of the state, EPA will now move forward with its deliberations regarding proposing the site,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.
A federal committee will meet in mid-April to discuss the priority of the proposed area, to be named the Bonita Peak Mining District.
A 60-day comment period would follow after the proposal is listed in the Federal Register. After evaluating and responding to comments, the EPA would make a final determination whether to add the site.
“A Superfund designation will help expedite the cleanup of dozens of abandoned mines in San Juan County that are polluting our watersheds, endangering the health of Coloradans and holding back local economies,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Cleaning up this pollution, protecting people’s health and supporting the local economy are priorities for everyone in the region.”