How The Gold King Mine Spill Got Silverton To Change Its Tune On Superfund

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Photo: Downtown Silverton, Colorado
Silverton, Colorado is the county seat of San Juan County.

The town of Silverton in the southwest part of Colorado looks poised for a major reversal. After resisting a Superfund designation for decades, the town looks ready to ask the governor for the federal environmental cleanup program.

Mark Esper, the editor of the Silverton Standard, told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner how the Gold King Mine spill last year changed the conversation. The 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage triggered disaster declarations in downstream communities, like Durango. It left many wondering why more hadn't done more over the years to clean up abandoned mines.

Listen to their conversation above, and read interview highlights below.

On the situation that led to the Gold King Mine blowout:

"It's a really complex system of mines above the ghost town of Gladstone, about 8 miles north of Silverton. Among these are the great Sunnyside Mine, which used to be a huge producer in Colorado [that] employed hundreds for decades here in Silverton. Sunnyside closed in 1991. The portal, down there at the base of Bonita mountain, was sealed. But the water level inside the mines has been rising -- and thus we had the blowout of the Gold King Mine, which is about a thousand feet above the portal of the Sunnyside Mine that was eventually closed. So it's a complex site. There's basically four mine adits (an entrance for an underground mine) that are draining acid mine draining chronically all year long. That's what the EPA was trying to address on Aug. 5 when they had the accident up there."

On how quickly Superfund would change things:

"As of now, I believe there are 18 Superfund sites in Colorado. Some of those -- no real action has yet been taken. One of the concerns is, just because you get on the national priority list does not mean you're going to get immediate action. Although in this case, given the publicity and the outrage over the Gold King disaster, we've been assured by federal officials that funding will be available."

On why town officials changed their mind:

"This was a game changer, no doubt. There were two big concerns about Superfund that this community had. One: it would kind of foreclose on the future of returning to mining. And the other one, the big one: the bad publicity. We are totally reliant on tourism at this point. ... But, the Aug. 5 blowout ... kind of blew that argument out of the water. That game is over. We had the bad publicity by not having Superfund, and by not addressing the problem that's only going to make the publicity worse. So I think town and county officials realize they have to address this and there's no other route available at this point."

On the possibility of more mining in the future:

"There's still hope that mining will return to this area. Although, like I say, it was 1991 when the Sunnyside shut down. But if you listen to people in the mining industry, they make that argument: that a Superfund site would inhibit future mining development in this area. I can't vouch for whether that's accurate or not."

On why Superfund is "the only option:"

"There's a lot of distrust about the EPA and this incident probably didn't help matters. Local officials were trying to find a way to fund remediation here without going to Superfund but they just couldn't find anyone to carry that water in Congress or anything. Ultimately, Superfund is the only program out there that can deal with a problem of this scope. There was Good Samaritan legislation talked about -- this is a bill that was just introduced by Sen. [Michael] Bennet and Sen. [Corey] Gardner -- that would limit liabilities to engage in mine cleanups. But here, you're talking about maybe a $50 million project -- maybe more. You'd need a Good Samaritan with a lot of money to take that on. And really, Superfund is the only option at this point."