It’s the end of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
After leading the cleanup of mine waste in the headwaters of the Animas River for more than 25 years, group co-founder Peter Butler announced this week, “It’s time to close up shop.”
“It is sad,” Butler said. “There were a lot of people who had different interests but who were willing to find common ground and work with one another. You don’t see that much now.”
The Animas River Stakeholders Group formed in 1994 and brought together a coalition of local, state and federal agencies, as well as mining companies and interested people, who sought to improve the health of the river amid heavy-metal loading from legacy mines.
At the time, water quality in the Animas River was degrading, and the state of Colorado proposed water quality standards. But locals argued the standards were unreasonably strict and didn’t consider naturally occurring levels of heavy metals in the river.
The Stakeholders Group formed to help draft more realistic water-quality standards and clean up problematic mines that dot the San Juan Mountains while avoiding an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund designation, a move many Silverton locals opposed.
The Stakeholders Group studied the entire Animas basin to determine which inactive or abandoned mines were the worst polluters. The group identified 34 mine waste piles and 33 leaking mine portals that accounted for 90% of the heavy-metal loading in the basin.
Equipped with a 20-year plan of action, the Stakeholders Group worked with agencies on more than 60 mine cleanup projects. Butler said an estimated $30 million was spent in the effort, much of it from Sunnyside Gold Corp.
In one of its most successful endeavors, the Stakeholders Group reduced the amount of zinc spilling into Mineral Creek, a tributary of the Animas. As a result, fish returned to the stretch of waterway for the first time in an estimated 100 years.
The Stakeholders Group was finishing its list of problematic mines when the EPA triggered the Gold King Mine blowout in August 2015, sending 3 million gallons of wastewater down the Animas and San Juan rivers and putting the region on an unstoppable track toward a Superfund designation.
When the EPA designated the site for Superfund cleanup in fall 2016, it was unclear what role the Stakeholders Group would have in projects.
Despite the many Stakeholders Group successes, water quality in the Animas River in recent years has diminished, mainly from the mines leaching into one of the river’s tributaries, Cement Creek.
Bill Simon, another Stakeholders Group co-founder, said shortly after he retired in 2016 that the group’s efforts to improve water quality were hindered by potential liability costs for large remediation projects, such as mines that discharge wastewater.
“We were doing really well, bringing the load down each year through efforts we did,” Simon said. “The problem is we weren’t able to address draining mines, and of course, the worst of those are loading into Cement Creek.”
Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner, said the community has been dealt a blow with the disbanding of the Stakeholders Group.
“We lose an unbiased, scientific look at things,” he said.
Fetchenheir said the Stakeholders Group kept federal decision-makers in check. Yet, he acknowledged that cleanup projects now required in the basin can be led only by the EPA because of cost and liability.
“What a great legacy of cleanup and remediation,” he said of the Stakeholders Group. “I would thank all the people involved … for actually doing some pretty incredible cleanup in the basin.”
Butler said the opportunity for weighing in on the mine cleanup around Silverton now exists through the Citizens Advisory Group, which provides input to the EPA. However, CAG chairman Butler said it’s not quite the same.
“I think the CAG is an important community voice for the Superfund site,” he said. “But the Stakeholders were always based on a collaborative approach where people worked hard to share information. Now, because of all the liability issues with Superfund, people are playing their cards close to their vest.”
One common criticism of the Stakeholders Group over the years was that it put off a Superfund designation, which some in the community say would have addressed and fixed the pollution problem years ago. When asked whether it was fair assessment, Butler disagreed.
“I think it was definitely worth the time and energy doing it, because it gave local people the ability to have a strong say in what happened … and it also gave people the ability to really understand the issues. And I think a lot of the cleanup was done way less expensively than if it had been a Superfund.”