DENVER – Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to take a key step Monday toward launching a federally funded cleanup of 48 old mining sites in the San Juan Mountains, formally endorsing a Superfund zone that includes a Silverton-area mine that sent wastewater into rivers in three states last August.
The Environmental Protection Agency would oversee the project, but it won’t proceed without the blessing of the governor and local officials. San Juan County and the town of Silverton endorsed the cleanup last week.
“The governor has always said he would support the wish of local communities, and they reached a consensus on requesting Superfund designation,” Hickenlooper spokeswoman Kathy Green said in an email to The Associated Press on Sunday. “We are working on the final details now.”
The EPA asked for Hickenlooper’s response by Monday. Green said it would come Monday morning.
An EPA-contracted crew inadvertently triggered the release of 3 million gallons of heavy-metal laden wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine on Aug. 5 during preliminary cleanup work.
The spill polluted the Animas and San Juan rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah with metals including arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc. Water utilities briefly shut down their intake valves and farmers stopped drawing from the tainted rivers.
Hundreds of Southwest Colorado mines have been leaking acid wastewater into rivers for decades. The EPA had proposed a Superfund cleanup before, but the idea attracted little or no support from local residents who feared it would hurt the tourist-dependent economy. They also worried it would drag on for years and depress property values.
After the Gold King Mine spill, many residents concluded that only a Superfund designation would provide the millions of dollars needed for a broad cleanup.
The EPA estimates the 48 sites in the proposed Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site spill 5.4 million gallons of acid mine waste per day into waterways.
EPA approval of the site could come in a matter of months, but cleanup work could still be years away. The agency would conduct a detailed analysis before developing a plan and starting work.