DENVER – A proposal to deploy the powerful Superfund program to clean up leaky Colorado mines — including one that unleashed millions of gallons of wastewater last year — isn’t stirring up much passion, despite formidable resistance in the past.
Some people who live in the scenic southwest corner of the state feared a Superfund designation would scare off vital tourist traffic, even though dormant mines have been belching poisonous wastewater into rivers for years.
Others objected on the grounds that it was a federal intrusion. Some worried Superfund status, which delivers federal money up-front for extensive cleanups, would diminish the chances of mining making a comeback.
But as of Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had received only seven written comments opposing the planned cleanup, and 18 supporting it.
“I’ve gotten more letters to the editor on this topic,” said Mark Esper, editor of the Silverton Standard, a weekly newspaper in the heart of the storied mining district in the San Juan Mountains. “I’m a little bit surprised,” he said.
Since opening the public comment period in April, the EPA said, the agency has received a total of just 33 written comments , with 25 clearly for or against. Others made suggestions about specific sites or commented on other projects.
Monday is the deadline for the public to weigh in.
Opposition to a Superfund designation softened after a 3-million-gallon spill from the Gold King Mine on Aug. 5, 2015, even though it was an EPA-led crew that inadvertently triggered the blowout during a preliminary cleanup operation.
Many people came to believe only the federal government could pull off the sweeping cleanup that will be required, Esper said. The project is expected to cost millions and take years.
Silverton Town Administrator Bill Gardner said the scant comments might signal that residents had their say during months of public meetings.
“I’m hoping that people feel included and that their concerns have been heard,” he said.
Tainted wastewater from the Gold King reached the Animas River in Colorado and the San Juan River in New Mexico and Utah. The EPA estimates the spill sent 880,000 pounds of metals into the Animas, including arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc.
Water utilities shut down their intake valves and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers. The EPA says the water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels.
After local officials and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper endorsed a Superfund cleanup, the EPA proposed the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund area in April. It encompasses 48 sites that spill a combined 5.4 million gallons of acidic waste daily, the agency said.
The EPA could formally create the Superfund district as early as this fall, after the agency reviews the comments and makes any changes to the plan.
If the area is designated a Superfund site, the EPA would examine the mountains for pollution sources and compile a list of cleanup alternatives. Long-term cleanup work would begin once the EPA chooses an alternative.
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