LEADVILLE – It was a long, difficult road as the community of Leadville went through a more-than-20-year process through the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup Superfund program. But local government officials here on Thursday told a large constituency of Southwest Coloradoans that, ultimately, it was worth it.
Various agencies from the Animas River watershed are on a three-day tour of several Superfund sites in Colorado, hoping to gain knowledge on the process as stakeholders look to make a decision about long-term water treatment in the Animas basin.
The situation in Leadville, in many ways, has a striking similarity with the leaking mine network north of Silverton – with its long mining history, relative isolation and fragile economy. An EPA-contracted company accidently released 3 million gallons of wastewater from the Gold King Mine on Aug. 5. It sent orange sludge down Cement Creek and into the Animas River, impacting water quality in three states.
But after more than a century of unregulated mining in Leadville, a two-hour drive west of Denver, an adit suffered a blowout, causing a die-off along the Arkansas River down to Pueblo. In 1983, Leadville was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list, just a few years after the program was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the town was officially taken off the National Priorities List. After the many battles between local, state and federal agencies, local officials there said it left a bittersweet feeling throughout the community.
“In the beginning, it definitely had an impact on our economic development,” said Howard Tritz, an assessor at the time. “It was a real obstacle. But the stigma of being a Superfund site has pretty much blown away; people are starting to come back here. It was bittersweet.”
Carl Miller, a Lake County commissioner in the 1980s, said there was a “hell of a lot more bitterness than sweetness,” as he remembers it. He said the unfulfilled promises, countless delays and “boneheaded mistakes” led to a kind of “war” between the state and federal government with the community of Leadville.
But even Miller, armed with countless headlines from old newspapers that detail the town’s struggle with Superfund, admitted the town is “better off.”
“We are better off today, but I wish they would have cooperated with the community,” he said. “From what I know now, I do think there’s much, much more cooperation. Hopefully, they’ve learned their lessons.”
Melissa Sheets, a reclamation project manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said this week’s tour, which includes a number of stakeholders, is a sign the agencies have learned from past mistakes in dealing with local communities.
“I think we’re learning as Superfund grows up,” Sheets said. “Unfortunately for this community (Leadville), they got the Superfund designation when this program was brand new, so I think they got a lot of the bumps in the road. This outreach we’re doing is absolutely unprecedented. We’re trying to make sure everyone has an opportunity for input.”
After visiting Leadville, the group went to Minturn’s Eagle Mine Superfund site, where residents said there really was no other option beside Superfund.
“There’s always some tension and disagreement as to what cleanup measures are going to be most effective,” said Bob Weaver of Leonard Rich Engineering. “But it’s really important to realize everybody wants to achieve the same goal. You’re not always going to agree, but it’s a lot better than doing nothing.
Representatives from the Animas River were sure to point out the many differences between Leadville and Minturn, ranging from potentially responsible parties to differences in geology. But San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman said overall it’s been a productive trip.
“I’ve learned a hell of a lot,” he said. “Anything we’re going to get is from working together. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said seeing the actual physical implementation of Superfund helped push the decision-making process.
“It’s not been an easy process in any of these situations,” he said. “But what we’re hearing pretty loud and clear from community members in each of these areas in general is that its been a really positive experience. The water quality as well as environmental quality has been radically enhanced.”
Leadville Mayor Jaime Stuever offered one last bit of advice for the group before a tour of the California Gulch Superfund site.
“We live in an environment in today’s world were we have problems,” he said. “If you look at how many years mining took place here, you realize it takes a long time to clean up a mess that’s been here many, many years. How could we have done it ourselves? We couldn’t have done it ourselves.”