Uncharted waters
As citizens Superfund group finalizes proposal to EPA, members question group's future role

Uncharted waters

In the early 2000s, there was a treatment plant in the Gladstone area along Cement Creek north of Silverton. The mines at Gladstone – which includes the Mogul, Red and Bonita (pictured above), American Tunnel and Gold King mines – are considered the worst polluters of all the 48 sites within the Superfund boundaries./File photo

Tracy Chamberlin - 04/26/2018

In the waning summer months of 2017, four local leaders were looking for a way to keep the communities affected by the Gold King Mine spill and the Bonita Peak Superfund site involved, engaged and, most of all, heard by the federal agency in charge of it all. With the goal of giving those communities a voice, the leaders of the Animas River Partnership, Animas River Stakeholders Group, Animas River Community Forum, and Durango chapter of Trout Unlimited formed the Citizens Superfund Workgroup.

Their first meeting was in late August with only four additional meetings on the schedule, and the agendas covered the history of mining in Silverton, the spill and the Superfund designation.

The ultimate goal was to create a list of all the things people affected by the spill and the Superfund wanted the Environmental Protection Agency to accomplish over the next 15-20 years, which is the typical lifespan of a Superfund.

After all, the problem wasn’t just the Gold King Mine or the EPA’s subcontractor who unleashed millions of gallons of bright orange mine waste into the Animas River on Aug. 5, 2015. The real issue was the hundreds of abandoned mines draining into the Animas watershed every day.

Many in the community wanted to make sure the federal funds and technical support that comes with a Superfund designation were not squandered but put to good use by addressing those root causes.

With all this in mind, the Citizens Superfund Workgroup got to work.

Seven months and seven meetings later, they’ve been able to put together a list of four specific goals for the EPA.

• Improve water quality and aquatic life below Silverton to conditions documented in 1999-2003.

• Demonstrate transparency and accountability to local residents, downstream communities and taxpayers.

• Develop and test innovative technologies for addressing mining-influenced water and mine waste.

• Support and enhance local stewardship of the community and environment.

According to Ty Churchwell, San Juan Mountains Coordinator for Trout Unlimited and one of the four leaders who originally formed the Citizens Superfund Workgroup, the one goal that easily rose to the top was returning the Animas to 1999-2003 conditions.

At that time, there was a treatment plant in the Gladstone area along Cement Creek north of Silverton. The mines at Gladstone – which include the Mogul, Red and Bonita, American Tunnel and Gold King mines – are considered the worst polluters of all the 48 sites within the Superfund boundaries.

When that treatment plant was in operation, the Animas was home to a healthy trout population. Today, the river is dead from Silverton all the way to where it hits Cascade Creek near Electra Lake.

Churchwell said they know this goal can be achieved because it’s been done before. “There’s no question we can attain that water quality,” he added.

All four of the workgroup’s goals were intended to be broad and general, Churchwell said. They can get into the specifics later – like which modern technologies would work best for achieving the 1999-2003 levels or exactly what level of cadmium the community is comfortable with.

The next step is to take those goals to elected officials and the EPA’s top brass.

Churchwell said they’ll head to Denver in the coming months to deliver their list to Doug Benevento, EPA administrator for Region 8, which covers six states including Colorado. Then, they’ll head to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office to give him a copy.

Next up is a trip to the nation’s capital. Churchwell said they plan to give EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and his second-in-command the memo before stopping by the offices for each member of Colorado’s congressional delegation. As the workgroup’s leaders try to make the community’s voice heard in Denver and Washington, its members continue to contemplate the group’s own future. Without a community-driven group, how can those affected continue to be a part of the Superfund conversation? Should they stick together and stay on top of the EPA’s progress? Or, should they evolve into something else altogether?

Within the EPA’s official framework for community involvement in Superfunds is something called a Community Advisory Group, or CAG. These CAGs are supposed to be diverse and inclusive. Their purpose is to provide “a public forum for community members to present and discuss their needs and concerns related to the Superfund decision-making process,” according to the EPA.

The federal agency does not require anyone to form a CAG, nor do they tell them how to do it. But, they do have plenty of suggestions.

For example, a community can form as many official CAGs as they want. Since the mine waste draining into the Animas affects everyone downstream, residents from Silverton all the way to Lake Powell are impacted in some way.

With such an extensive list of stakeholders, CAGS could be formed by every community along the river or one for each county or even one for each state. But, the EPA warned that it’s better to have only one group as a contact point between the agency and area residents. So, members of the workgroup are left to ponder who would best represent all those affected by the Superfund and where would they meet?

Another point for the Citizens Superfund Work-group to consider is whether or not transforming into a CAG would give them more sway at the EPA. Taking community input is one of several items the EPA is required to check off its Superfund to-do list, but that input doesn’t have to come from a CAG.

Churchwell said for all intents and purposes, the workgroup is already acting like a CAG. One of the key differences, though, is the CAG’s ability to tap into special grant funding and other resources the EPA offers to official citizen groups.

One of those resources is called a Technical Assistance Grant – a $50,000 grant to help community groups pay for technical assistance. Another resource is the Technical Assistance Services for Communities, in which the EPA offers its own technical support with scientific, regulatory or policy inquiries.

Peter Butler, co-coordinator for the Animas River Stakeholders Group and another founder of the Citizens Workgroup, said there are pros and cons to becoming a CAG.

One benefit is that it offers more long-term stability, something that would benefit a community facing the prospect of a 10 to 15-year Superfund lifespan. On the flipside, it would be a challenge to come up with a limited number of individuals to represent all the communities that stretch across three states and hundreds of miles of rivers.

“This is exactly what needs to be discussed,” Butler said. 

For the latest updates on the workgroup’s efforts, visit www.sanjuancleanwater.org. To check out the EPA’s website on the Bonita Peak Mining District, visit www.epa.gov/superfund/bonita-peak.

Uncharted waters