Disclosure. Transparency. Accountability. Public input.
These words and many synonyms have been used repeatedly by the Environmental Protection Agency in designating and planning the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund project, just underway on the contaminated headwaters of the Animas River near Silverton.
It was disturbing, therefore, to learn that a call for public comments on an EPA plan to drill a horizontal well within the entrance of the Gold King Mine, install a flow-control structure within the mine entrance and perform additional work at the site was issued after the work was well underway.
In fact, the agency disclosed in an update that it expects the work to be done well before the end of September. The public comment period, however, does not close until Oct. 16.
When asked to explain this discrepancy, the agency explained via email that “we are required to make the administrative record available to the public within 60 days of on-site removal activity. At that time, we also provide at least 30 days for the public to comment on the administrative record.”
In other words, the EPA can take action first and inform the public later, a policy that seems unwise considering the agency’s role in causing the Gold King Mine spill of Aug. 5, 2015.
To be clear, we are not in an expert position to question the work being done at the Gold King site. The agency has already stabilized the mine entrance, and this step is designed to reduce the potential of another discharge of contaminated water. This is a necessary step, as was the installation of a water treatment facility now operating at Gladstone just downstream of the mine.
But we want to have faith in the agency’s plans and actions. The timing of this disclosure – combined with the disingenuous call for public input – does little to validate that trust.
Online comments to our story from Bill Simon, co-founder of the Animas River Stakeholders Group and an expert on the mining district and its legacy, sum up our misgivings.
Had the EPA consulted local experts before attempting to open the Gold King, Simon stated, the spill might have been averted. Instead, the agency’s actions “led to disaster. The present situation is no different: the EPA continues to operate behind close doors, not allowing for meaningful contributions from experts. ... EPA now asks for comments after the fact. Hopefully, nothing will go wrong with their present drilling plan into the great unknown. Will they ever learn?”
Public interest in the project is well informed and active. On Sept. 9, over two dozen people, including Fort Lewis College faculty and students, turned out for a tour of the mining district organized by the Citizens Superfund Workgroup and led by Peter Butler and Steve Fearn, two founding members of ARSG and experts in both mining and in mine remediation. Fearn, it should be noted, at one time was the owner of the Gold King.
The goal of the workgroup, repeatedly stated in their meetings and again during the tour, is to put together a list of citizen recommendations for the EPA as the Superfund project proceeds.
We are confident that list will represent the interests of those who live downstream and depend on the Animas River, including many people with important ideas and recommendations to convey.
It is essential that the agency learns to listen.