DENVER – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took full responsibility Tuesday for the mine waste spoiling rivers downstream from Silverton, Colorado, but people who live near the idled and leaking Gold King mine say local authorities and mining companies spent decades spurning federal cleanup help.
They feared the stigma of a Superfund label, which delivers federal money up-front for extensive cleanups. They worried that corporations would kill a hoped-for revival in the area’s mining industry rather than get stuck with cleanup costs. And some have not trusted the federal government, residents say.
The EPA pushed anyway, for nearly 25 years, to apply its Superfund program to the Gold King mine, which has been leaching a smaller stream of arsenic, lead and other wildlife-killing heavy metals into Cement Creek.
That water runs into the Animas and San Juan rivers before reaching Lake Powell and the lower Colorado River, a basin serving five states, Mexico and several sovereign Native American nations.
As millions of gallons of spilled sludge spread hundreds of miles downstream Tuesday, officials from the century-old mining towns of southwest Colorado defended their opposition to federal help.
Mining companies don’t like to invest in Superfund sites because they’re heavily scrutinized and more costly to develop, said Ernest Kuhlman, a San Juan County commissioner and Silverton’s former mayor.
Also, the stigma could have scared away rafters and anglers who helped bring $19 billion in tourism money to Colorado last year.
"How many people want to go to a Superfund site for tourism or recreation?" Kuhlman asked.
Now they’ve got a bigger problem: Last Wednesday, a small EPA-supervised work crew inspecting the Gold King mine accidentally knocked a hole in a waste pit, releasing at least 3 million gallons of acidic liquid laden with toxic heavy metals. Dissolved iron in the waste plume – familiar to miners as "yellow boy" – turned the area’s scenic waterways a shocking orange hue.
The EPA ordered stretches of the rivers closed for drinking water, recreation and other uses at least through Monday. Colorado and New Mexico made disaster declarations. The Navajo Nation declared an emergency, saying that at least 16,000 of its people, 30,000 acres of crops and thousands of livestock survive on water that’s now off-limits.