The Environmental Protection Agency has conducted intensive water and soil sampling in the upper Cement Creek area in recent weeks to see if the area qualifies as a Superfund site.
The creek long has been considered one of the worst sources of metals contamination in the upper Animas River basin, owing to water laden with heavy metals gushing from abandoned mines in the Gladstone area.
And the water quality in the creek appears to be worsening, said Sabrina Forrest, site assessment manager for the EPA in Denver. This degradation was not what the EPA had in mind in the 1990s when it backed away from possible Superfund listing of the watershed, Forrest said. Previous EPA management had agreed to forgo listing as long as progress was being made in the watershed.
Forrest said the EPA is conducting a site reassessment to determine if the complex of mines near Gladstone could qualify for the National Priorities List, which would make it eligible for the so-called Superfund.
Superfund officially is called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.
Enacted by Congress in 1980, it created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industry to establish a trust fund for major environmental cleanups. This tax no longer exists; however, the EPA receives more than $7 billion in congressional funding each year and about $1.2 billion goes to Superfund programs.
The road ahead
The first step of the process for listing Superfund sites is for the EPA to do a preliminary assessment and site inspection.
If these indicate the site could be listed, much more work, involving many more people, will be needed to place the site on the priorities list, Forrest said.
Since 2009, monitoring has been conducted to see how water quality and flows have been changing since the American Tunnel was plugged and water treatment in Gladstone was stopped in 2004.
We dont have a comprehensive-enough data set to say that this is a (National Priorities List)-caliber site, Forrest said.
She said more sampling has been completed in recent weeks.
It will be another four to eight weeks before we start getting data and tasking our contractors to start poring over it, Forrest said.
She added that she expects a determination about whether the site qualifies as a Superfund priority to come in January or February at the earliest.
The listing also would need community support, she said, and state support in the form of a governors letter to the EPA.
Theres a lot of coming together that needs to happen, Forrest said.
The question of a consensus
The work focuses on a cluster of mines at and above Gladstone, including the American Tunnel, Gold King Number 7 level, the Mogul and Grand Mogul and the Red and Bonita mines.
Bill Simon, coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said that while the group has sought appropriate and cost-effective assistance from the EPA, the group has consistently rejected the Superfund program.
The stakeholders group was formed in 1994 as a collaborative approach to water-quality issues in the region and as an alternative to a Superfund designation in the area. It includes representatives from the EPA, Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the San Juan Public Lands Office and community members.
Many in the Silverton community felt that the stigma of such a Superfund designation would devastate the areas tourism industry.
Nevertheless, all options are on the table, as they have been in the past, Simon said. The EPA has obligations that (it) must attempt to address, and we have ours. They are not always the same.
His group instead has favored funding from other sources, such as the Headwaters Initiative, Mine Scarred Lands and Targeted Brownfields programs.
Simon estimated about 400 pounds of zinc per day are being poured into the drainage. Much of that previously was being taken out by the treatment plant at Gladstone before 2004.
Steve Fearn, a member of the stakeholders group and a Silverton mining engineer, says the group has not been asked to support a listing, and in my opinion, there would probably not be a consensus in the group to support this.
Fearn noted that during the last 16 years, the group has successfully worked on more collaborative alternatives.
Fearn acknowledged that the Gladstone/Cement Creek metal-loading issue is probably the single-largest water-quality issue we have in the Upper Animas Basin.
He expressed hope that the data gathered by the EPA will be useful in understanding the details of the problem so that better solutions can be identified.
Nibbling at the edges
Forrest said she appreciates the progress the stakeholders group has made over the years.
The stakeholders have done a phenomenal job, but theyre kind of nibbling around the edges of what are some larger remaining issues with regard to sources of water quality and habitat degradation, Forrest said. Those issues will be expensive to address.
Forrest said she would like to see more community involvement in addressing water-quality degradation from mining.
Todd Hennis of Silver Plume, who owns several mining properties in San Juan County, expressed concern that the EPA will require past and present landowners in the area to pay for the cleanup, whether they are responsible for the contamination or not.
He accused the EPA of breaking its promise to the people of San Juan County by pursuing a possible Superfund designation.
Forrest said the EPA agreed to steer clear of Superfund as long as there was improvement, but that hasnt continued.