Why Silverton still doesn't want a Superfund site

A polluted Colorado town wants to clean up on its own terms. But it’s been saying that for years.

 

Steve Fearn has spent 20 years fighting Superfund status in the mountains around Silverton, Colorado. The Victorian-era mining town, wedged among the ragged peaks of the San Juans, is surrounded by so many leaky mines that even before one blew out last month, sending a flood of pollution down the Animas River, the area was considered Colorado’s largest untreated source of acid mine drainage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has considered it for Superfund status since the mid-1990s. 

But Superfund — the federal program designed to clean up America’s most toxic sites — usually only proceeds with community support. And in Silverton, that’s lacking. Even after the Aug. 5 spill captured national attention and reinvigorated downstream communities’ insistence that the leaky mines be cleaned up, locals continue to bristle at the suggestion of Superfund. “We’re a tourist area,” Bev Rich, a lifelong Silverton resident, told the Durango Herald in 2013. “You hear the word ‘Superfund’ site and 99 percent think ‘danger.’ So why would you want to go to a Superfund site?” 

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The Gold King Mine is one of dozens draining acidic water into the Animas River watershed.

Those who support Superfund, however — including many residents of the downstream city of Durango — say that there’s simply no other way for the region to move beyond its toxic past. Travis Stills, a Durango lawyer who’s worked on and studied Superfund sites, thinks the problem is too politically entrenched (and expensive) to be handled by state or local authorities alone. 

Fearn disagrees. The 71-year-old engineering consultant and former mine owner is one of the strongest voices in Silverton’s anti-Superfund contingent. In 1994, he helped form the Animas River Stakeholders Group to try to prove that acidic drainage from the watershed’s mines could be cleaned up without interference from the federal government. And in recent weeks, he’s explained to the New York Times and other national media why Superfund still isn’t right for Silverton. Among the reasons: a designation would stigmatize the town and turn away tourists. Litigation and bureaucracy could delay the clean-up. Property values could decrease, new mining ventures be deterred, and local input be ignored.

All are valid fears — but not entirely rooted in fact. True, the idea of visiting a Superfund site doesn’t exactly appeal to tourists, but neither does the idea of visiting a Superfund-eligible site. And any stigma seems not to linger after the project is completed: There was a Superfund project in Aspen, Colorado, where million-dollar homes now stand. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a peer reviewed study found that residential property values within three miles of Superfund sites increased 18.6 to 24.5 percent after the sites were cleaned up and deleted from the National Priorities List.

Yet the odds of that happening aren’t great: Only 388 sites out of more than 1,700 have been fully cleaned up and removed from National Priorities List, though construction is complete and work under long-term remediation at more than a thousand others. Plus, Superfund is chronically low in cash: it was originally funded by a tax on petroleum products, but Congress ended that in 1995. Today the program relies on Congressional appropriations that vary widely from year to year. (Funds are recouped by an effort to “make the polluter pay,” but that’s not always possible.)

And while some Superfund projects have been hugely successful — the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, for example, is now a 15,000-acre wildlife refuge — others offer lessons in all that can go wrong. In Cañon City, Colorado, residents say they haven’t been privy to the details of how 15 million tons of radioactive uranium tailings left behind by Cotter Corp. are being handled, in part because the cleanup has been partially led by Cotter Corp. itself. The project has also been plagued by delays, equipment failures and a lack of money. It’s one of the nation’s longest-running Superfund sites. 

But Stills, who represents residents in Cañon City, says Silverton could avoid the mistakes that have plagued it and other unsuccessful Superfund projects. Community involvement is one key factor, he says. Another is getting the mining companies responsible for the mess to pay up and “get out of the way:” the opposite of what happened in Cañon City and what’s currently happening in Silverton, Stills adds. (The Sunnyside Gold Corp., in particular, is involved in the Animas River Stakeholders Group and has offered $10 million towards the cleanup effort on the condition that there is no Superfund designation.)

For now, Silverton residents seem willing to take Sunnyside up on its offer. Last week, the county approved a resolution to ask Congress for an as-yet-undetermined amount of money to mitigate the economic and environmental impacts of Animas River pollution without resorting to Superfund status. 

Will it be enough? Critics say no — asking Congress for emergency funds to deal with a long-term problem is unrealistic, and the piecemeal approach the Animas River Stakeholders Group has used isn’t a long-term solution either. While the group has been been moderately successful — it’s relocated mine waste away from streams, bought water rights and diverted ditches, and completed more than a dozen mitigation projects that have helped bring fish back to a once-lifeless stretch of the Animas — it hasn’t solved the problem. After more than 20 years of work, the Gold King Mine alone continues to dribble 200 gallons of tainted water per minute. More than a dozen others have similar discharge. 


Krista Langlois is a correspondent at
High Country News.