The same Environmental Protection Agency crew that caused the Gold King Mine spill is again catching flak for using potentially toxic material from a mine waste pile to improve a road north of Silverton.
About two weeks ago, local residents started to notice that a portion of County Road 53, a remote dirt road that travels through the San Juan Mountains, was resurfaced and widened with a white-yellowish material.
After further investigation, it came to light that the road was covered with mine waste rock taken from the base of the Mogul Mine, one of the largest culprits of degrading water quality in the Animas River watershed.
The Mogul Mine waste pile is such a large contributor of toxic metals that it was included on the Animas River Stakeholders Group list of 34 mine waste piles and 33 leaking mines that account for 90 percent of metal loading in the entire basin.
“That mine waste site had a lot more metals than many of the other sites up there,” said Peter Butler, a coordinator with ARSG. “It was definitely a priority for us.”
That the EPA-contracted crew – Environmental Restoration LLC – used the waste rock for road improvements has caused a backlash toward an agency that is tasked with improving water quality in the watershed.
“They used waste rock that was not treated or processed or modified, and that’s a concern for us,” said San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay. “We have some wetlands and fens down there.”
Residents are also outraged that the EPA proceeded on the road improvement project without San Juan County’s permission, or even notification, before work began.
For almost 20 years, the small mountain community of about 600 people had opposed federal intervention on the cleanup of the area’s widespread pollution because of a legacy of hard-rock mining, mostly in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The conversation changed in August 2015 when the EPA’s contracted crew breached the portal of the Gold King Mine, releasing 3 million gallons of mine waste down the Animas River. At that time, Silverton was lured to a Superfund listing with the promise of a seat at the table.
“They didn’t ask the county,” Silverton Town Trustee Pete Maisel said of the road project. “And the county is upset about it.”
Several San Juan County staff members did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
The EPA works in two divisions at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, with a “remedial crew” and a “removal crew,” said Rebecca Thomas, project manager for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
Thomas said Thursday that it was determined earlier this year that a gauge needed to be installed at the Mogul Mine to measure the water pressure behind the mine’s bulkhead. The EPA also wanted to install a gate at the entrance of the mine to keep people out.
To do so, the EPA needed to bring heavy equipment up to the difficult-to-access site, which required the road improvements, a task that fell to the direction of the Environmental Restoration – the removal crew.
Environmental Restoration apparently used the potentially toxic material without any sort of prior notification or approval.
“We asked them to do the work, but we don’t necessarily tell them how to do it,” Thomas said. “This is just a case where they knew they needed to improve the road.”
Thomas said now that the work on Mogul Mine is complete, the mine waste rock used on the road will be removed and put back at the dumpsite. The road will be returned to its original condition.
“I don’t know if this was (Environmental Restoration’s) plan from the outset or not, but it makes sense to do it this way,” Thomas said. “I think the biggest misstep EPA took was not informing the county ahead of time.”
The rogue work also caught the attention and ire of Albert Kelly, one of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s senior advisers and appointed lead on a task force focused on streamlining the EPA’s Superfund program.
Kelly was on an impromptu and unannounced two-day tour of the mine sites around Silverton. He also met with some officials in Durango and Silverton.
“He promised us last night (Wednesday) it will be taken care of,” Maisel said. “I believe he was pissed off at his own people.”
To avoid any similar conflicts in the future, the EPA intends to improve how it will share information about its projects to San Juan County, Thomas said.
She said Kelly’s visit was a positive step in moving forward with the Bonita Peak Superfund site, and a sign the EPA administration is dedicated to committing resources to its cleanup.
In August, Pruitt, too, visited the Gold King Mine site.
“That level of interest from the administrator’s office ... really shows the administrator’s emphasis and priority,” Thomas said.