Sunnyside Gold Corp. is calling for the removal of 27 mining sites from the “illegal and overly massive” Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund near Silverton, a list that includes the company’s controversial American Tunnel.
“SGC is challenging the unlawful listing of only certain sites that were not assessed or tested before being listed under Superfund,” the company’s Silverton-based spokesman, Larry Perino, said in an email.
On Wednesday, Sunnyside filed an opening brief with the U.S. District Court of Appeals, arguing that of the 48 mining sites in the “fictional” Bonita Peak Mining District, some have not been properly evaluated.
“EPA’s decision, if allowed to stand, will have dramatic adverse consequences and will set a terrible precedent,” Sunnyside’s attorneys said. “EPA acted arbitrarily, capriciously, and illegally when it included (sites) without any analysis.”
Under the Hazardous Ranking System, the EPA is tasked with scoring sites on relative threat, if any, to human health or welfare, or the environment.
EPA officials did not response to requests for comment.
However, when Sunnyside in December filed its petition with similar claims, EPA system expert and environmental scientist Jennifer Wendel told The Durango Herald that 19 mining sites went through the agency’s ranking system in the first summer season of the Superfund site.
For the other 27 sites and two study areas, Wendel said the EPA plans to conduct further investigations this summer to get a better understanding of their impact in the Animas River watershed.
“They are listed as possible sources at this time but included in (the Superfund) because we had enough evidence to suggest they could potentially be causing an issue and should be included in the listing,” she said at that time.
The EPA’s project manager for the Superfund site, Rebecca Thomas, has repeatedly said as the agency continues to evaluate the basin, the exact number of mining sites could change.
The Bonita Peak Mining District was officially listed as a Superfund site on Sept. 9 – just a little over a year after the EPA caused the Gold King Mine blowout, which sent three million gallons of mine wastewater down the Animas and San Juan rivers.
As a result, the EPA included 48 mining sites that span the heavily mineralized and mined mountains around Silverton, with the agency and others arguing that for water quality to truly improve in the Animas River basin, there must be a comprehensive look at all contributing sources.
Sunnyside – considered the largest “potentially responsible party,” a term EPA uses for entities it considers financially on the hook for cleanup – has two properties in the listing: the Sunnyside Mine and the Mayflower tailings.
In its brief, Sunnyside argued the EPA illegally listed the American Tunnel, which drains the Sunnyside mine workings and is thought by some to be responsible for increased discharges out of the Gold King Mine.
“The nearly two mile long American Tunnel and the interior workings of the Sunnyside Mine provide excellent examples of how a listing based on speculation and conjecture is improper,” the court filing said.
Many researchers believe the Sunnyside Mine workings have filled up since they were plugged in the late 1990s, and that the mine pool has shifted into other mine workings.
That’s what some believe led to increased metal-laden discharges out of the Gold King Mine, which led to the EPA stepping in a few years ago to conduct a remediation project.
Sunnyside Gold, for its part, said the company has spent more than $15 million in cleanup costs since the mine shut down in 1991.