A decades-long battle between federal environmental officials and a small Colorado town is about to end in the government’s favor, thanks to the agency-caused Gold King Mine spill disaster, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation has found.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives have focused intently on Silverton, Colorado since the mid-1990s, accumulating evidence — and sometimes using scare tactics — to persuade residents to drop their opposition to a Superfund designation for the surrounding region.
Residents surrendered to federal demands only after an EPA work-crew turned the nearby Animas River bright yellow for nearly a week by releasing a three-million-gallon flood of acidic mine waste under extremely questionable circumstances in August 2015.
Suspended in the flood was 880,000 pounds of toxic metals, including lead and arsenic, that poured into the river that supplies drinking water for people living in three states and the Navajo Nation. The mine is just upstream from Silverton.
A host of highly questionable agency actions immediately before the spill and an apparent official coverup since the accident prompted outrage from the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
“After more than two decades working in the region, they still couldn’t get it right,” said Rep. Rob Bishop told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “EPA created a man-made disaster harming numerous states and tribes. The combination of a lack of due diligence and a half-baked plan directly led to the August 5 blowout.”
Bishop, a Utah Republican, condemned EPA for being “incompetent, evasive and deceitful,” adding that “if this wasn’t criminal negligence, it should be.”
The disaster was the last straw that convinced locals to reverse their decades-long opposition and allow the EPA to go forward in designating the region for Superfund listing – a designation the agency reserves only for the nation’s most polluted sites.
Once the designation becomes official, EPA will assume vast new powers throughout the region. But EPA has been encroaching on residents’ lives going back to at least 1994, with more than a few memorable episodes along the way.
In one such instance, EPA officials abruptly announced at a town meeting they needed to test soil for pollution at a local school.
“The Town Board was somewhat blindsided by your request,” San Juan County Commissioners and the Town of Silverton Board of Trustees told EPA in an April 2014 letter. “The County Commissioner [sic] were not even informed that the EPA would be addressing the Town.”
“However, the biggest flaw in the process was bringing the School District into the discussion without talking directly with the School Superintendent,” the local officials said in the letter, which was obtained by the House panel.
“The Superintendent spent the next day on damage control informing the community that an environmental review of the school grounds had been completed and nothing was found that would raise health concerns.”
Town and county officials also questioned the necessity of soil testing because previous samples “didn’t raise any significant red flags” and they were “unaware of any medical studies or individual cases where the soils have had an adverse impact on a child or adult’s health. We have generation after generation after generation that have lived most or all of their lives in Silverton without suffering any health-related issues from their long-term exposure to the mineralized soils.”
The officials claimed that “despite the minimum justification, EPA managed to maximize the fears in parents, as well as raise concerns for property owners.”
Local officials also wondered if EPA representatives who spoke with residents “were really listening to our concerns, if they were listening but they did not understand how critical those concerns are, or did they listen to our concerns but determined that the EPA knows what is better for Silverton and San Juan County than we do.”
Regardless, another letter obtained by TheDCNF, showed that less than a year later, EPA, joined by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Department of Health & Environment, compelled a nearby mine owner to conduct studies normally done only after a Superfund designation is received.
Numerous agencies “all have expended substantial efforts and resources in defining the problems” in the region around Silverton, said the January 2015 letter to Sunnyside Gold Corporation. “Furthermore, the agencies are continuing to commit resources to characterize the extent and magnitude of contamination in other parts of the Upper Animas River Watershed.”
The letter said EPA would use Superfund authority to work at the nearby Red and Bonita Mine. The agency has also used the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERLCA) – the Superfund law – to force other area mine owners to grant EPA officials access to their properties. (RELATED: Gold King Mine Owner Fears EPA’s ‘Limitless Legal Budget’)
How EPA has used Superfund authority against Silverton exemplifies the inability of local residents to resist the federal agency when it is determined to have its way.
The first goal of the Animas River Stakeholders Group that was formed in 1994 to protect the environment from abandoned mines was to “keep CERCLA out.” The EPA not only blocked accomplishment of that goal, it also thwarted local efforts to cleanup the region’s environment.
“It definitely has taken the wind out of our sails,” group official Peter Butler told The Denver Post in May. “It’s uncertain what the Animas River Stakeholder Group’s future will be.”