DENVER – Listing the Bonita Peak Mining District near Silverton as a federal Superfund site will likely leave the area better off, say those who experienced similar designations in other parts of the state.
From property values to environmental health, Superfund sites in Colorado have predominantly proved not to be the black eye feared by some.
As area county commissioners and town managers toured other Superfund sites in Colorado in the wake of last year’s Gold King Mine spill, anxiety over a listing waned, with officials seeing positive outcomes elsewhere.
“That was a critical series of events in our three-day tour of the other Superfund sites,” said Bill Gardner, Silverton town administrator. “The EPA had never organized such a tour before.”
The Environmental Protection Agency in April proposed a Superfund listing that would cover 48 mine-related sites. Final approval could come as early as the fall. The proposal has the support of local governments and the state.
The impetus for the listing was the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill, which released an estimated 3 million gallons of mining sludge into the Animas River. The water initially tested for spikes in toxic heavy metals.
While the EPA caused the spill – a result of poor planning during excavation work to begin restoration at the mine – the pollution is the result of more than 100 years of mining activities.
With a Superfund listing, millions of dollars would be injected into reclamation efforts, which over many years would potentially result in an end to the toxic drainage.
“EPA has been able to pull through these Superfund cleanups to very beneficial outcomes that I would say in all cases has been reasonable,” said Dave Holm, executive director of the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation and former director of the state’s Water Quality Control Division, where he served for 14 years.
Before serving as director, Holm was the manager of the state’s Inactive Mine Reclamation Program. He oversaw most mining-related cleanups in Colorado.
Holm said that several years ago, the EPA took a “command and control” approach to Superfund sites, which made the state and local jurisdictions feel like they were “being invaded by a foreign power.”
“But EPA learned a lot of hard lessons about how important the community relations are in Superfund areas,” Holm said. “I do not see a negative stigma, or a dampening of tourism.”
In fact, Holm said a strange thing happens, where the Superfund site itself can actually drive tourism, as people are curious to visit high-profile sites. The Gold King Mine incident made international headlines.
“It certainly highlighted the legacy of mining in the Rocky Mountain West,” said Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the proposed Bonita Peak Mining District. “There’s certainly reason to pay attention to these old mine sites and what impact it had to the surface water quality in our state.”
Thomas agreed that communication is key to easing anxiety, underscoring that looking at other sites and engaging with communities helped relax fears.
“There’s a recognition that this mining district is so large and so complex ... it really takes a program like Superfund that can take a comprehensive look and bring the resources to bear to look at this in a very holistic fashion,” Thomas said.
But U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, who has been critical of the EPA and its response since the spill occurred, continues to worry about management.
He also worries about the potential for property values to drop. At other sites across the state, there were examples where property values initially dropped, but then improved as a result of cleanup efforts.
“We’re going to continue to be skeptical, not only in terms of confidence of the EPA performing, but also how they’re going to be implementing any kind of Superfund designation,” Tipton said.
The Cortez Republican was hesitant to support a Superfund designation but decided to back the decisions made by local governments and residents.
State Superfund and remedial programs managers say there have been examples of positive economic impacts as a result of Superfund listings. They also point out that cleaner water means more fish, which drives tourism to Southwest Colorado rivers.
“Overall, the Superfund process does improve human health and the environment,” said Doug Jamison, Superfund/Brownfields unit leader for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “These are large sites with significant environmental impacts. We do benefit communities and the surrounding environment.”