Silverton and San Juan County seek quick-fix government funding

The Town of Silverton and San Juan County plan to ask the federal government for quick-fix, disaster-relief funding to help counteract the impacts of the huge spill of acid mine drainage that turned the Animas River an alarming yellow earlier this month.

Town and county officials passed a joint resolution Monday and Tuesday that calls for teaming up with affected downstream parties in the Animas River Basin to ask for help from the same federal funding pot that has been used to mitigate impacts of other high-profile disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the Gulf oil spill.

We recognize that this is a regional problem and that it starts in our neighborhood,” said San Juan County Commissioner Willy Tookey about the proposal that originated in the tiny, remote town of 655 residents.

Silverton and San Juan County propose using the funding to build and operate a water treatment facility in the area along Cement Creek above Silverton. That is where a tunnel blowout on Aug. 5 sent three million gallons of heavy metal-laced water gushing down the creek, into the Animas River, on to the San Juan River, and all the way to Lake Powell. The plug that was holding all that water back in a historic Gold King Mine split open when the Environmental Protection Agency ironically was working on lessening the amount of acid drainage already leaking from that, and neighboring, abandoned mines.

The proposal from Silverton offers the first concrete plan for action in the wake of a disaster that affected three states and everything from farming and recreation to Indian tribes and private well owners.

Along with building a water treatment plant and funding research for water treatment and leaking mine fixes, the resolution crafted in Silverton calls for paying for other mine remediation projects that have been languishing for decades and for identifying and addressing other mine portals that could potentially have catastrophic blowouts. It would also free up funding for economic and environmental recovery efforts along the polluted waterways.

This disaster funding request comes as the EPA has been focusing on containing the leakage in holding ponds and on testing downstream water for contaminants. The federal funding would be separate from what the EPA is spending on mitigation and testing.

Silverton and San Juan County, along with multiple other stakeholders in the Animas River Basin, have been working with the EPA for decades to come up with an acceptable method of dealing with the hundreds of historic leaking mines in the San Juan Mountains above Silverton. Silverton residents had been locked in disagreement over whether the EPA should seek a Superfund designation for the Silverton area as a way to fund cleanup.

Opponents of that designation feared it would stigmatize their tourist town and identify it as an environmental disaster zone. Supporters have called it the best way to clean up waterways that have been so heavily laced with heavy metals that fish have not been able to survive in upper portions of the drainage for decades.

Mark Eddy, who is acting as a spokesman for Silverton and San Juan County, said the disaster-relief resolution “doesn’t foreclose any options that have been hashed over for years.”

The conversations about Superfund – those are long conversations,” he said. “This is designed to get emergency funding up there quickly.”


Photo credit: Jeff Belmonte, Creative Commons, Flickr.

has been a journalist for more than 40 years, most of that on the Western Slope of Colorado. She worked for The Denver Post for 17 years and currently is freelancing and exploring book possibilities in “retirement.” She likes nothing better than telling the unique, and sometimes quirky, stories of the Western half of the state.