DENVER – The Bonita Peak Mining District could become one of the most quickly-approved Superfund sites in history.
Final approval of the proposed designation may come as early as this fall.
The Environmental Protection Agency formally proposed the San Juan County listing in April, after Gov. John Hickenlooper and local governments expressed their support. It’s rare for Superfund sites to be proposed and approved in the same year.
The speed at which the proposal is moving through the process – which included a public comment period that saw few individual comments and little opposition – underscores a remarkable evolution.
“It was an evolution because there had been years of resistance to Superfund, there’s no doubt about that, and years of fear. But we rolled up our sleeves,” said Bill Gardner, Silverton town administrator.
Gardner had only been administrator for two weeks when the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill occurred, releasing an estimated 3 million gallons of mining sludge into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.
The EPA acknowledged fault in the incident, which occurred as a result of “insufficient planning.” A contracted team was beginning reclamation work at Gold King with excavation at the entrance to the mine when debris gave way, releasing the contaminated wastewater. The river tested for initial spikes in heavy metals, including lead and arsenic.
The proposed Superfund site near Silverton would include 48 mining-related sites.
Remediation efforts would likely include a permanent water-treatment facility, as well as long-term water-quality monitoring. Construction of the treatment plant could cost as much as $20 million, based on estimates from previous projects.
Preliminary costs to Superfund are covered entirely by the EPA. Once construction begins, then the EPA would cover 90 percent of costs, and the state would handle the rest. After 10 years, the state would be responsible for operation and maintenance costs, which could exceed $1 million per year.
The process might take a decade or longer, which leaves much uncertainty. But leaders say if the EPA continues to give local communities a voice, then restoration should unfold smoothly and with little fanfare.
“We had worked so hard through the months to keep the public and downstream partners and communities involved ...” Gardner said. “That work finally resulted in what I’ve been told by the EPA is the most voice at the table of any community that they’ve ever worked with. We have a real good chance of sustaining that.”
The EPA continues to host community meetings in San Juan County.
“We’re doing our best to really engage people in this process,” said Rebecca Thomas, EPA’s remedial project manager for the proposed Bonita Peak Mining District.
“I know there is often some criticism about Superfund in that it takes so very long to get through one of these projects. My response to that is it took a long time for these projects to get in this state – we’re talking about decades of mining.”
Thomas said there will be plenty of opportunities for individuals and groups to weigh in, especially as officials move into the final decision-making phase on how to perform reclamation, which could take years to develop.
“There’s often a lot of interest right up front and then you might find that as you get further along in the process, some people might be more interested in one aspect of the project than another aspect of the project,” Thomas said.
In terms of progress, the EPA has implemented better communication strategies and the state has begun real-time monitoring of water in the area, looking at such factors as pH.
“That data will tell us, is it something with respect to the addition of contaminants into the stream that people need to be concerned with, or is it just a normal variation in the fluctuation of the stream,” said Patrick Pfaltzgraff, director of the Colorado Water Quality Control Division.
“The silver lining in the Gold King event is being able to have this type of real-time network in place.”
Superfund managers for the state – who have worked on a long list of projects – say residents and visitors are not likely to notice much, especially in the preliminary stages of any approved project.
“It’s not like there are going to be people running all over town collecting samples,” said Doug Jamison, Superfund/Brownfields unit leader for the Department of Public Health and Environment. “It’s not all that noticeable.”
If Superfund is finalized, managers will start with data collection and a risk assessment, which considers harms to humans and the environment.
From there, coordinators will move to a feasibility study, where stakeholders will consider how to restore the site based on the earlier collected data.
The final phase is a decision on how to go about cleanup, which includes additional public input.
“Our goal is to make sure that remedies are efficient and effective,” Jamison said.
“There’s probably times where it doesn’t look like there is progress being made because things are happening internally ... but there actually is,” added Mary Boardman, state project officer for remedial programs with the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division of CDPHE.
Boardman pointed out that often work is taking place behind the scenes, such as analyzing and validating data.
Given the high-profile nature of the Gold King Mine spill, which was exacerbated by the politics of the EPA causing the spill, Jamison believes the event could prove educational.
“There are draining mines, and the average person isn’t aware of the environmental issues,” he said. “This issue exists, and in some cases, it’s very significant.”