Silverton officials have canceled a meeting on Thursday where they were expected to make a final decision on whether to pursue a Superfund designation, which could delay the issue until September.
The deadline for polluting sites to be considered in March for the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List is Sunday. If the town of Silverton doesn’t receive an extension from the EPA to be listed this spring, officials must wait for the next review period in September.
“It was an aggressive timeline in the first place,” said Mark Eddy, a hired strategic consultant for the town of Silverton. “This is pretty much the biggest decision the elected officials have voted on in the history of the town, and we just want to get everything right.”
Last week, Silverton Town trustees and San Juan County commissioners announced the two boards would hold the joint meeting with the hope of signing a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper directing him to request a Superfund status for the discharging mine network north of town. The delay was announced Monday. The Town Hall meeting is still scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday.
One major hurdle stands out: the boundaries of what would be deemed a Superfund site.
There are more than 200 abandoned or inactive draining mines in and around San Juan County, which boasted one of the most successful mining industries in the country throughout late 19th and early 20th century.
In the 1990s, the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a local mine cleanup coalition, identified 34 mine waste piles and 33 discharging portals that accounted for 90 percent of the metal loading in the basin. Peter Butler, a coordinator of ARSG, said the four mine drainages in the area about 10 miles north of Silverton, up County Road 2, put out as much metals into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, as the other 200 drainages combined.
It was there the EPA triggered the Gold King Mine spill in August, which led to the current Superfund discussions in a town historically opposed to federal intervention.
A consistent pulse of anxiety in the town with about 600 residents about an hour’s drive north of Durango is the fear that the boundaries of a Superfund designation would encroach into town limits. Those concerns were amplified last spring when the federal agency asked for permission to test the soil in town for suspected widespread contamination from years of mining activity.
In the fall, when the EPA sat down at the table with Silverton officials to start Superfund negotiations, federal representatives assured town trustees and county commissioners the designation would be limited to the mining network discharging into Cement Creek.
It appears those terms have changed.
“They are looking at a larger area than what we initially thought,” San Juan County Manager William Tookie said. “Rather than painting with a broad brush stroke, we want to be surgical. We want to identify properties that are a contributing factor, as opposed to drawing a big circle.”
Tookie said the EPA is now looking to address mines leaking into the Upper Animas, as well as Mineral Creek – another tributary of the Animas River – and some of those mining claims come uncomfortably close to town.
“There are concerns about properties adjacent to Silverton,” Tookie said.
Tookie and Eddy said other issues persist: the town wants a letter of agreement that provides Silverton and other local officials a say in decision-making during the Superfund process, and officials are seeking reimbursements for time and cost expenses related to the Gold King Mine response.
“There are just a number of details to be worked out,” Eddy said. “It’s better that it be done right than it be done fast. Nobody’s giving up.”
Tookie said the EPA is investigating whether the federal agency can grant Silverton an extension to be considered in its March review. He said the town will hold a vote on Superfund once it gets the information it seeks.
“When we set up the schedule it was tentative, assuming we’d have questions from the EPA answered, and at this point, it’s just not going to happen by Thursday night,” he said.
“Our goal is still to move forward as fast as we can, but we’ve got to have all the information in front of us so the elected officials can make a wise decision and know what we’re getting into the next 20 to 30 years.”
The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.