Nearly six months after the Gold King mine blowout, and with Silverton still in limbo over Superfund, a sense that downstream communities should take a larger role in negotiations regarding the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup program is growing.
At the San Juan Citizens Alliance’s quarterly meeting Wednesday, several Durango and La Plata County residents urged local officials to take the reigns in pursuing a Superfund designation in time to make the EPA’s March listing.
“San Juan County’s concerns are speculative,” said La Plata County resident Frank Lockwood. “Our concerns are not speculative. Ours are real. We’ve defined them economically, and I think our government officials should move forward.”
On Monday, the Durango City Council did just that. Councilor Dick White, in attendance, said the board sent a letter three days ago directing Gov. John Hickenlooper to request a Superfund listing.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said a resolution was passed in support of Superfund status, though county commissioners have not yet made a decision whether to formally send a letter to the governor.
“We’ve made the point, I think very clearly that La Plata County was more impacted by the spill than Silverton and San Juan County,” Lachelt told the audience. “Because of that, I think Superfund, the EPA and the state really need to expand their definition of affected communities when they consider who they go to to seek Superfund status.”
The contention comes from a January meeting when Silverton town trustees and San Juan County commissioners decided to cancel a vote whether to pursue a Superfund designation to address the draining mine district north of town, responsible for degrading water quality in the Animas River.
Officials downstream were concerned the chance was missed to be included on the EPA’s March review session of polluting sites. The federal agency’s other consideration period is in September. And while the EPA is still figuring out whether it can grant an extension, for some members of the crowd estimated over 100 people, any further delay toward cleanup is a step in the wrong direction.
“We use the water for irrigation, so we have a personal stake in this,” said Clint Kearns, who lives in Hermosa. “We rely on the water as much or more as they do. So it would be really useful for Durango and La Plata County to take the lead.”
Kearns questioned whether Silverton and San Juan County’s list of demands were a “poison pill” to put off Superfund status, a program the community has strongly opposed for more than 20 years, citing concerns over a perceived stigma the designation would bring to a town dependent on a delicate tourism economy.
Three main points have emerged as a roadblock to federal intervention on the mines loading heavy metals into the Animas basin: the boundaries of the Superfund, reimbursements for costs associated to the blowout and an assurance local entities will have a seat at the table in future decision-making.
In Silverton’s defense, John Whitney, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, said the community to the north’s concerns are not unreasonable, and despite the delay, he believes an agreement can be reached by next week.
“I think there’s going to be success,” Whitney said. “I understand the desire for Superfund here and downriver, and I believe the conclusion many people reached in Silverton was that it is the best option.”
Dan Olson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said for the past 20 years, discussions over how to address the inactive mines have been focused on communities closer to the headwaters of the Animas. But since the plume of orange acid mine drainage was released, more involvement downstream is not only justified, it’s essential.
“I think what happened in the Gold King spill, everyone in the watershed realized we are all at risk,” Olson said. “Therefore, we should all have a say how these sites get cleaned up.”
As the communities of the Animas and San Juan rivers become more active in the health of its waterways, Lauren Pagel, an Earthworks policy team member, said she hopes the same can be said across the country, where an estimated 40 percent of rivers are affected by acid mine drainage.
“It’s taken an issue not many folks understood, and made acid mine drainage a household term,” Pagel said, joking. “But it has created an interest we haven’t had in a long time.”
Durango Mayor Dean Brookie is meeting with Hickenlooper on Friday, and it’s unclear how Durango’s letter requesting Superfund status will influence the governor, and the cleanup process. The EPA told The Durango Herald on Tuesday the agency is still discussing whether it can grant Silverton an extension.