The alarming French’s mustard color of southwest Colorado’s Animas River is now running somewhere between orange Kool-Aid and the yellowish hue of Mountain Dew. But anger over the Environmental Protection Agency bungle that led to the unprecedented fouling of the river is building.
So is longstanding mistrust of the EPA, especially in the historic San Juan Mountain mining town of Silverton where the leak of more than 3 million gallons of toxic water originated last week, and where the possibility of such a disaster has spurred decades of debate over solutions.
“We have trust issues with the EPA,” said Mark Esper, editor and publisher of The Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper that has been printed since before many of the now problematic gold and silver mines were carved out in the 1880s.
The EPA for decades has been holding out the possibility of turning the drainage around Silverton into a Superfund site to mitigate the problem of heavy-metal-laden mine water leaking from mines into waterways. Superfund is the moniker of a federal program that cleans up abandoned hazardous waste sites, including everything from old livestock holding pens to high-profile polluters like the Love Canal.
The EPA had been eyeing the polluted drainage around Silverton for decades before a sudden blowout occurred Wednesday as the EPA was using heavy equipment to investigate a plug at a portal at one of the more problematic mines – the Gold King.[pullquote]“We have trust issues with the EPA,” said Mark Esper, editor and publisher of The Silverton Standard & The Miner.[/pullquote]
Neon-yellow water burst from the mine portal that day, washed out a road, blew out culverts, swept away a Suburban and rolled through the heart of Silverton where the water has often been the color of Tang or chocolate milk in the past due to mine discharges. Fish haven’t been able to live in those waters for many years.
Then the real disaster began to unfold.
The bright yellow toxic water – 3 million gallons of it as of Monday – snaked its way into the Animas River and chased out rafters, anglers, swimmers and kayakers. The spill prompted utility companies to shut down intakes from the river and forced cutbacks in water use in Durango. Farmers had to close off irrigation ditches. Hundreds of residential well owners had to stop using their now off-color water.
The City of Durango and LaPlata County declared a state of emergency. The Navajo Nation threatened to sue the EPA. Colorado’s congressional delegation urged action. Hickenlooper Monday declared the Animas drainage a disaster area. And the heavy media focus on the visually shocking environmental fiasco moved downstream with the spreading yellow plume.
Reporters pointed fingers at Silverton for the disaster because the town has long opposed a full-blown Superfund EPA cleanup of the leaking mines. A Superfund designation carries a connotation of bad pollution and Silverton residents feared the impact that might have on tourism. Some residents, who have long hoped for a mining comeback, also feared that a Superfund designation would curb that possibility.
Silverton had not been ignoring the pollution problems tied to old mines. The town of 629 year-round residents had been working toward cleanup of mine waste for 21 years as a part of the Animas River Stakeholders. That group works in collaboration with the EPA, local municipalities and counties, environmental groups and other entities to find a solution to old mine cleanups. That collaboration led to the Animas watershed being chosen as a national pilot project for remediation of old mine leakage – a designation that now seems as ironic as the new name residents are using for the EPA: Environmental Pollution Agency.
There are about 200 leaking mines around Silverton and an estimated 1,500 shafts, mills, tailings piles and mine dumps dotting the steep slopes. The area has been called the worst untreated mine drainage in a state rife with old problem mines. There are an estimated 22,000 abandoned mines in Colorado.
The long-discussed possibility of an EPA Superfund designation became alarming to some residents of Silverton this summer when the agency asked to do soil sampling in the town itself. That led to fears that Silverton could be added into a federally controlled cleanup zone.
San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay said if the term “Superfund” is dropped, he thinks Silverton residents will be ready to push for some quick action once the immediate crisis of the more than 100-mile plume of yellow contamination is dealt with.
“We are all going to say this is too dangerous to not come up with some solutions,” McKay said.
Peter Butler, a member of the Animas River Stakeholders, said that group is split on what should be done, in large part because the EPA has never been more than vague about what the agency would do to effect a cleanup around Silverton.
Elaine Murray, who has been fielding a raft of calls at the Silverton visitor center from tourists wanting to know if it is safe to come to the town, said many locals are frustrated with the EPA and have been for a long time.
They have no trust that the agency will fix either the current disaster or the long-term problem.
“The EPA says, ‘Oh, we’re sorry.’ But they won’t give us the full extent of the damage,” she said. “They make it sound like the pollution is no worse than orange juice. But if that’s the case, what in the sam heck were they doing up there in the first place?”
Photos courtesy of Nancy Fisher