The current owners of a former smelting company are on the hook for nearly $1 million in the Superfund site cleanup of mines around Silverton, which seeks to improve water quality in the Animas River watershed from mining pollution.
Recently, a “consent decree” – basically an agreement contract – was reached with two companies, Blue Tree Corp. and Brown Strauss Inc., to pay an estimated $75 million for cleanup sites around the country.
Part of the agreement has the companies paying just under $1 million to the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Colorado for the cleanup of sites included in the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
The EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment did not respond to requests for comment. An attorney for the companies included in the consent decree declined to comment.
According to the decree, Blue Tree and Brown Strauss acquired the liabilities of American Zinc, Lead and Smelting Co., which operated in the Silverton area in the early 1900s.
Under the “Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980,” or CERCLA, companies may still be on the hook for the liabilities of assets they acquire, even if they are historic operations.
The consent decree does not clearly state American Zinc’s past actions that contributed mining pollution into the Animas River.
The only thing the decree says is that “historic mining operations by Blue Tree’s predecessor American Zinc … have contaminated soil, groundwater and surface water with heavy metals at the Bonita Peak Site.”
Casey Carroll with the San Juan County Historical Society was unable to find any mention of American Zinc, Lead and Smelting Co. in the society’s vast archives.
However, a document from the State Historical Society of Missouri lists several sites the St. Louis-based company operated around Silverton that are now included in the Bonita Peak Superfund, which consists of 48 sites.
Namely, the Sunnyside Mine, Pride of the West mill, Silver Ledge Mine, Mountain Queen and Natalie-Occidental Mines.
Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group said American Zinc probably did not operate any mines. Instead, it is likely the company set up small smelters next to mines to process ore.
In the early 1900s, there were a number of small smelters around the mines of Silverton, Butler said.
But with the construction of a large smelter in Durango, it was easier to send ore on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Durango to be processed. As a result, many of the small smelting companies closed.
Butler said American Zinc’s imprint on the environment is likely very minimal.
“I think you might be hard-pressed to even find some of these sites,” he said.
It appears Peabody Energy Corp. at some point owned Blue Tree and its liabilities, and that Blue Tree was a legacy company created to hold liabilities.
But Peabody’s liabilities were settled when it declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2016. Blue Tree’s, however, were not, and at some point, Brown Strauss acquired many of the company’s assets.
The two companies will pay out the nearly $1 million in seven installments over several years. The consent decree itself is not finalized and is open to public comment.
If and when the decree is finalized, Blue Tree and Brown Strauss will become the first official “potentially responsible parties” to pay out for cleanup costs associated with the Superfund site around Silverton.
A “potentially responsible party” is a term the EPA uses for entities it considers financially on the hook for cleanup.
It is unclear how many potentially responsible parties there are in the Bonita Peak Superfund site. Butler estimated there could be “quite a few others.”
By far the largest identifiable potentially responsible party is Kinross Gold Corp., an international mining conglomerate that owns Sunnyside Gold Corp., which ran the last operating mine in Silverton that closed in 1991.
Kevin Roach with Sunnyside Gold said the company has begun “initial activities as part of the EPA’s unilateral administrative order, but the overall work plan still needs to be approved.”
It’s unclear how much Sunnyside Gold has spent associated with the Superfund site to-date.