Since long before the Environmental Protection Agency’s team of contractors sent 3 million gallons of metals-laden water into the Animas River’s headwaters from the Gold King Mine above Silverton, a political impasse has stymied efforts at a comprehensive solution to acid mine drainage in the Silverton caldera. More than a decade ago, the EPA had proposed listing some parts of the region under Superfund designation – a move that can unlock the resources needed to fund costly cleanup efforts.
Many Silverton residents and officials have balked at the notion, concerned that the label would sully the town’s reputation and crimp its economic prospects. The concerns have long been both ideological and largely academic, and after the Gold King spill demonstrated the need for immediate and long-term solutions to the vast mine drainage problem, should be relegated to the conversation’s archives and replaced with a pragmatic mentality, unconcerned with labels.
Would that it were. As part of the ongoing political investigations into the causes, effects and answers to the Gold King Mine spill, Congress is considering a number of important angles, including what went wrong, who is at fault and what can be learned, the economic impacts of the spill and, more importantly, potential answers to the underlying problem. In the various hearings and investigations exploring these many facets informing the Gold King spill and others, as well as efforts at remedying the Silverton caldera drainage problems, Superfund is once again emerging as a divisive notion, with Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, the most recent hand-wringer over the possible negative effects the label might have on Silverton’s economy. “Designating Silverton a Superfund site ... could severely damage the town’s reputation and prove costly to the local economy,” Tipton told the U.S. Senate’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee last week. That discussion is really neither here nor there at this point, given the far-reaching impact of the Gold King spill – on Silverton’s economy and well beyond.
What is relevant is the need for a permanent water-treatment facility that captures drainage from the four worst-offending mines that drain into the Cement Creek – an Animas River tributary. There is no argument about that notion, and, in fact, the town of Silverton and San Juan County have reiterated their support for such a facility, regardless of the label that it bears. That facility will be costly – to build, and then to operate and maintain in perpetuity – and the conversation should now shift to how to pay for it. If Superfund is the appropriate mechanism by which funding can be accessed, then it should by all means be applied. If there are other resources readily available to fund the facility, then they should by all means be released.
At a time when there is both the need and opportunity to advance a long-overdue solution to the mine-drainage problem above Silverton – a scenario that affects many states, Native American tribes and municipalities as well as countless economic and environmental sectors – there is no reason to argue about semantics. Instead, Congress and the EPA must find a way to access funding to install a permanent treatment facility so as to protect each of those communities and the industries that support them. That may not be easy, but ruling out a proven possibility simply because of the fear it conjures is not a step toward resolution. Superfund must remain on the table, along with all other possibilities for, at long last, addressing mine drainage above Silverton.