When it appeared a Superfund designation would be sought in the days after the Gold King Mine spill, Beverly Rich, Silverton native and chairwoman for the San Juan Historical Society, stood in front of the Environmental Protection Agency and threatened to chain herself to one of the area’s more prominent mining relics.
“I told them I’d tie myself to the Bagley tunnel is what I’d do,” Rich, 65, recounted from her offices in Silverton almost a year after the mine blowout. “To some, it’s ugly. But it tells a story, and we’re serious about our history up here.”
After the Aug. 5, 2015, mine blowout, local, state and federal officials are faced with a complicated tight rope act: How do you clean up potentially toxic sites that are also important historically and culturally?
The answer, if previous Superfund sites are any indication, lies within Rich’s level of dogmatic conviction that the small mountain town must preserve its nostalgic ties to the mining industry, which dates to the 1870s.
“We’re going to help them (EPA),” Rich said, “but we’re also going to watch them like hawks.”
According to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, all federal agencies – including the EPA – must identify significant historical sites within a federally funded project area before any work or cleanup can begin.
If the EPA finds a feature of cultural significance, it is responsible for working with invested agencies to reduce adverse impacts to the site.
While sound in theory, the process has over the years been mishandled.
“They totally ignored the National Historic Preservation Act,” archaeologist John Parker said of the agency’s work on the Elem Indian Colony reservation in Lake County, California.
There, Parker and other critics say the EPA did not complete an archaeological review of the project area before it removed soils from a toxic waste site between June and October 2006.
As a result, nearly 8,000 cubic meters of archaeological-rich soil, which trace back 14,000 years to the tribe’s first inhabitance in the region, were destroyed, to the outrage of tribal elders.
“They (EPA) knew it was legally required, and they just broke the law,” Parker said. “And they did it right in front of the people whose cultural resources it belonged to.”
Parker said he took his experience with the EPA to a national archaeology conference, and asked colleagues if they had similar dealings with the agency.
“There was plenty of ammunition,” he said.
While there are a number of other examples of EPA mishandling culturally important sites during cleanups, the agency is credited in many instances for showcasing a town’s history.
At a steel complex in Roebling, New Jersey, that closed in the 1980s, surviving buildings during remediation were turned into a museum, which celebrates the industry’s role in the small town along the Delaware River.
At the Torch Lake site on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan, mill tailings and other relics from nearly a century of copper mining activities were repurposed to boost the town’s local tourism-driven economy.
Whether historically-rich sites are preserved during a Superfund clean up, according to archaeologist Bode Morin, boils down to one pressing factor: community involvement.
“It really has to be driven at the local level,” Morin said. “In fact, heritage is considered to hamper efforts of the EPA because they want to be efficient in protecting human life and the environment.”
Morin, who published a dissertation on the topic, pointed to the example of the Anaconda Co. Smelter in Montana, a 300-square-mile site that contained hazardous waste from ore mined in Butte from the 1880s to 1980.
Most notably, Morin said, the community there saved the Washoe Smelter stack, which at 585 feet tall, is the largest freestanding masonry structure in the world.
“They had a much stronger grass-roots community that understood the laws and could articulate their desires for a stronger approach to preservation,” Morin said.
“While there were some significant loses, the fact they were able to force consideration of heritage on a broader scale ultimately was a success.”
The last mine in Silverton closed Aug. 2, 1991, but the town has never let go of its halcyon-days attachment to the industry.
For almost two decades, residents largely opposed a Superfund designation; in part because of the fear it would negatively affect tourism, but also because of an overlying concern the listing would eliminate any chance mining could return.
A trip to the small mountain hamlet today is in itself a trip back in time.
Most visitors are brought into town on an 1880s steam engine to walk streets lined with late Victorian architecture (strictly reinforced in city ordinances) that light up with bouts of gunfight re-enactments.
By Rich’s account, The San Juan County Historical Society’s mining museum is probably one of the most comprehensive collections in the country, and the organization itself, formed in 1964, is credited with receiving numerous grants for historic preservation.
And one of the most important parts to the experience, Rich said, are the litterings of mining’s legacy all over San Juan County – areas included in the EPA’s proposed Superfund that looks to address 48 mining-related sites, called the Bonita Peak Mining District.
“Our economy is based on people coming to see the old mining areas and ghost towns,” said Rich, citing the fact that an average of 400,000 people a year visit the ghost town Animas Forks. “It’s how we make our money.”
Anticipating pushback, the Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado abandoned mines program lead Brent Lewis said he’s directed his team to get a head start on characterizing the importance of mining sites listed in the Superfund designation.
“There has (historically) been less sensitivity to retaining cultural significance because some of these sites are a substantial threat to human health and the environment,” Lewis said.
“So it’s quite the challenge for us to balance all of that. Personally, I don’t like to sanitize the history. I’d like to retain as much as possible because it is a tourist draw.”
Lewis said because the BLM has more archaeologists on staff, the agency will take the lead on pinpointing historic preservation.
The EPA, for its part, wrote in a emailed response it will “avoid or minimize effects to the cultural resources where possible while still protecting human health and the environment.”
Scott Fetchenhier, the San Juan County commissioner who is the liaison for Superfund talks, and also a former miner, said he intends to keep the pressure on state and federal officials when it comes to preserving Silverton’s past.
“Here, we’re really protective, and they won’t just go up there and bulldoze,” Fetchenhier said.
As for Rich, she stands at the ready with lock and chain should the need arise to chain herself to the Bagley tunnel, a draining adit included in the proposed Superfund listing that has sustained two blowouts in the past 20 years and sits beside the landmark Frisco Mill.
Coming from a long line of miners, Rich, like most residents in Silverton, has succumbed to the idea of Superfund, though that doesn’t mean she’ll let her guard down.
“They (EPA) already sustained such an incredible black eye,” Rich said of the EPA’s responsibility in the Gold King Mine blowout.
“I don’t think they want another.”