Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine, made his first public appearance on Tuesday since the Aug. 5 blowout, and he had strong words for the Environmental Protection Agency and members of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
Hennis acquired the Gold King Mine in 2005 as part a foreclosure sale and has never had the opportunity to mine the network. Before that, he also purchased the nearby Mogul Mine, as well as surrounding properties, including the Gladstone region, the site of the EPA’s new wastewater-treatment plant.
For years, Hennis has raised the alarm that increased flows out of Gold King, Mogul, as well as Red and Bonita mines, are a result of the bulk-headed American Tunnel, which backs up acid mine drainage in the vast Sunnyside Mine network. In 2010, Hennis claimed the EPA demanded to use his land to investigate leakage from the mines. But when he denied the EPA access, the agency threatened to fine him $35,000 a day, and he reluctantly agreed. Now, that lease is set to expire Dec. 15, and Hennis said the EPA has been unwilling to negotiate a new deal with him as retaliation for being a “whistleblower” in the days after the Aug. 5 blowout.
Speaking to the Animas River Stakeholders Group, Hennis said what was supposed to be a relatively simple look into the leaking mines has turned into a complete takeover of his land, evidenced by settling ponds, the water-treatment plant and the overall mess from the EPA’s triggered blowout.
“When the Gold King event happened, I gave the keys to (the EPA) for Gladstone, and said ‘Go ahead, use anything, just return it after you’re done,’” Hennis said. “That rapidly changed into having the hell torn out of my land.”
Hennis sat quietly in the back of Silverton Town Hall for most of the stakeholder’s meeting, but after almost two hours of listening to stakeholders talk about potential long-term treatment plans for water-quality improvement in the Animas watershed – all of which involved using his land – he’d had enough.
“Some of you have government pensions to rely on when you retire,” he said. “My retirement is Gladstone. Sitting here, listening to people say Gladstone would make a perfect site for a remediation laboratory, having my land cavalierly dealt with, is not a happy feeling.
“It would be nice if someone talked to the landowner,” he continued. “I know you wouldn’t want your backyard or your retirement stolen from you. This is not going to happen. I’ve tried to be very reasonable.”
Hennis acknowledged that the local EPA crew and Region 8 have not been the problem. Instead, he said the Washington D.C. office has it out for him. He wasn’t sure what will happen after Dec. 15 if an agreement is not reached, but he made pretty clear he is not going to stand down.
“If I were San Juan County, I wouldn’t think of eminent domain,” he said. “That’s a fight you don’t want to go down. Anyone who’s known me the last 30 years knows I don’t back down. I don’t let things get stolen from me. I won’t let Gladstone get stolen from me.”
He also wants to be absolved of any discharge liability in the district as part of a lease agreement.
EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said she could not comment on the specific legalities of negotiations, but did say the water-treatment plant is a top priority in ensuring public health and protecting the environment.
“We look forward to working with Mr. Hennis (and any other property owners) regarding continued access to the Gold King Mine area, including the Gladstone region,” she said Wednesday.
Hennis also took the opportunity to remind stakeholders of the real problem in the Upper Animas Basin: the Sunnyside mine workings and the backed-up water table as a result of the bulkhead, which he estimated is at 2 billion gallons.
“The bulkheads are far beyond their designed capacity,” he said. “They may not blow tomorrow, they may not blow next week, but anytime you have something far beyond capacity, it is going to fail at some point.”
Sunnyside spokesman and Silverton native Larry Perino told The Durango Herald after the meeting that he doesn’t believe Sunnyside’s acid mine drainage has seeped into the nearby mine workings. It’s a position Kinross – an international mining conglomerate that purchased Sunnyside – has held for quite some time.
However, both the EPA and Sunnyside officials have expressed support to investigate in the spring where the mine flows are coming from. That will allow the agencies to better understand the network.
For Hennis’ part, it’s unclear what he is seeking in a new lease with the EPA. He said if approached reasonably, he would be willing to work with the agency on a plan that could involve some treatment facilities.
“The last 2½ months of my life have been as horribly affected by this as the downstream people,” he said. “For 15 years, I begged (the EPA) to take action on the Sunnyside Mine Pool and said at some point a disaster would occur. I didn’t expect to be the recipient of the disaster, as well as the downstream people.”