Twenty-five years ago Tuesday, Sunnyside Gold Corp. shuttered the last operating mine in Silverton, yet the company’s involvement in the region is very much alive.
On Friday, Sunnyside – now owned by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. – called for New Mexico’s lawsuit over the Gold King Mine spill’s impact to the state to be dismissed.
“We see no basis for us even being named in this litigation,” Sunnyside spokesman Larry Perino wrote in an email.
In May, the state of New Mexico, seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, naming the Environmental Protection Agency and its contractor, as well as Sunnyside and its parent company, as responsible parties for the Aug. 5, 2015, mine blowout.
In the complaint, New Mexico state officials claim the “root cause” of the disaster dates back more than 20 years to Sunnyside’s attempt to block waste water drainage by building bulkheads in tunnels below the vast Sunnyside Mine network north of Silverton.
Last summer, the EPA was working on two adjacent, historically dry mines – Red & Bonita and Gold King – that started discharging shortly after the bulkheads were installed. On Aug. 5, crews dug too far into the entrance of the latter, releasing 3 million gallons of mustard-yellow water laden with heavy metals.
In its July 29 motion to dismiss, Sunnyside argued that installing the American Tunnel bulkhead was done at the direction of the state of Colorado, and that New Mexico officials “point to no facts to support that historic discharges from the Sunnyside Mine pool in Colorado, unrelated to the Gold King Mine blowout, somehow impacted New Mexico.”
The motion further alleges New Mexico has no personal jurisdiction over Sunnyside; the state of Colorado is a required party in the case and is not named (Colorado was sued by New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court); and New Mexico is not entitled to punitive damages.
Sunnyside has long dismissed claims that water backed up behind the American Tunnel has seeped to other mine workings, though most experts in the region suspected the opposite.
Regardless, as a result of the proposed Superfund listing, the EPA plans to enter the mine and investigate, which should provide clarity, EPA officials previously said. It is unclear if those efforts have started this summer.
And Sunnyside’s involvement does not end with the New Mexico lawsuit, as the company has emerged high atop the list of potentially responsible parties that the EPA would seek financial costs from should a Superfund be declared.
Though Sunnyside claims an agreement with the state of Colorado to install three bulkheads in the 1990s would release the company of further liability for pollution in the district, officials familiar with the Superfund process say otherwise.
“It’s a different law,” Doug Jamison, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a previous interview. “(Sunnyside) was relieved of their liability from a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. It has nothing to do with Superfund liability.”
It’s been a convoluted, and expensive, quarter century since the company last hauled gold, silver, copper and other precious metals from the highly mineralized mountains surrounding San Juan County.
After the mine shut down in 1991, a number of remedial efforts began, with Perino estimating about $15 million has been directed to cleaning up sites around the basin.
Still, ever since Sunnyside’s water treatment plant shut down in 2004 (a result of a sale to local Steve Fearn, who was evicted by current Gold King Mine owner Todd Hennis), water quality in the Animas River has degraded.
The town, too, felt the departure.
“It was a wrenching time,” Silverton native Bev Rich said.
Rich said nearly 150 workers lost high paying jobs. The only school in the small mountain hamlet of about 600 full-time residents went from 150 students to about 50, and San Juan County lost $300,000 – about one third – of its annual budget.
Not only were residents at a loss about how to rebound from the financial impact of the mine closing, prevalent fears emerged as to what effect it would have on the town’s identity.
Rich, 65, said enough time has passed that the community, for the most part, has reconciled its new path toward a tourism-based industry. Yet an emptiness remains: On a recent school tour of the Mayflower Mill, she realized not one child’s father had worked in a mine.
“I almost fell over it just shocked me so much,” she said. “Our roots gone, and now it’s been a generation or more that has not been involved in the mining industry. We’ve come out on the other side, which is good, but it certainly isn’t as robust as it used to be.”