The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing 40 early actions on about 30 mining sites over the next five years as the agency continues long-term investigations on the best way to improve water quality in the Animas River basin.
On Wednesday, the EPA held a public meeting in Durango, as part of a weeklong outreach effort to communities within the watershed. A meeting was held in Silverton and a third is planned Thursday in Farmington.
According to the EPA’s Superfund project manager Rebecca Thomas, a comprehensive evaluation of the Bonita Peak Mining District – which includes examining a complex network of mine workings, groundwater and water treatment options – could take years.
As a result, the EPA and other agencies involved in the Superfund cleanup want to undertake 40 early actions, which Thomas called “no-brainer” projects that could begin as early as August.
“We’ve got years worth of investigations to do,” Thomas said. “These early action are not intended to be a final remedy. They’re no-brainer activities to help get the water clean and reduce the amount of loading.”
The list for early action sites is being finalized, but would include projects such as creating diversions so that surface water avoids running into contamination sites or mucking out retention ponds intended to reduce metal loading.
This summer, the EPA and other agencies will continue to characterize the basin, taking data to complete evaluations on the risk to human and ecological health, placing wells and gauges at bulkheads to monitor groundwater and trying to understand underground mine workings.
Many of the concerns raised Wednesday night among the crowd of about 50 people were centered on the future funding prospects for the EPA, whose budget has been targeted for cuts by the Trump administration.
Thomas said the EPA has secured funding for this year’s investigative work, as well as money for operating the water treatment plant that clean discharges out of the Gold King Mine.
But as far as this year’s planned early actions and overall funding into 2018 and beyond, the future remains uncertain.
“Nobody knows what’s happening with federal funding right now,” Thomas said. “So who knows? I’m optimistic we’ll get some of that funding to start early action responses this year.”
Thomas said the list of early actions should be proposed by late June or early July. The public will have 30 days to comment before the plan is finalized sometime in August.
Ben Martinez, with the U.S. Forest Service, said a remediation project at the Brooklyn Mine on Forest Service land is slated to begin this summer and will include addressing surface disturbance and a draining adit.
And Mark Rudolph, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s project manager for the Superfund site, said the state it attempting to secure funds left by a previous mining company, Asarco, to address the Aspen and Amy mines.
Thomas said the EPA would avoid conducting Superfund actions during the height of Silverton’s tourism season, which usually includes July and most of August, to avoid conflicts in the rugged, mountainous terrain.