The mining activity around Silverton has long defined the small mountain community – for the jobs and riches it once brought, for its collapse and the ensuing hardships Silverton faced, and now for its legacy as a residual polluter of critical waterways that drain into the Animas River. This last enduring piece of the Silverton mining puzzle has vexed the community and those beyond it for decades, with increasing concern over a steady, pollution-laden leak from the Red and Bonita Mine that began in 2006. The Environmental Protection Agency will take a critical and expensive first step in correcting the problem – it is welcome news for Silverton and everyone downstream.
The EPA will construct a bulkhead to reduce the 800 gallons of water saturated with high levels of iron, zinc, cadmium and aluminum seeping from the mine every minute. This project, which will cost between $750,000 and $1.5 million, is designed to limit the heavy metals that find their way from the mine into the Animas River Watershed, by way of Cement Creek. It will do so by stopping the water from leaking out of the mine, presumably backing it up into its 2,000 feet of tunnels. Scientists evaluating the complex posit that there are no other possible outlets for the water, suggesting that stopping the flow will – for now, at least, stop the problem.
What the bulkhead will not do, however, is treat the water that it restrains and that which continues to flow. How, whether and who will pay to do so is a remaining series of questions for the Animas River Stakeholders – a citizens group comprising those committed to improving water quality in the Animas – as well as the river’s flanking communities, primarily Silverton. Answering these questions is complicated. While the EPA is the logical agency for handling such a project, and its Superfund designation would be the logical means by which to do so, there is concern about the stigma such a label would bring to the community. But the price tag associated with a water-treatment facility of the caliber needed to address the mine pollution is high: $12 million to $17 million for construction, plus an estimated $1 million annually for operation. Accordingly, there are few funding options.
The bulkhead is an important first step in addressing this increasing pollution problem. Water quality has diminished downstream of the leak and the metal-heavy seepage must ebb. The EPA is taking much-needed action, but the community must look to the next critical step: treating the polluted water that continues to spill into the Animas River Watershed. The stakes for doing so are high.