As the third anniversary of the EPA-caused Gold King mine disaster approaches, real question exists as to whether the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can overcome an inherent conflict of interest and properly manage the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site to improve water quality in the Animas River. The EPA could demonstrate such capability by taking two simple and sensible actions: 1) run the EPA Gladstone Treatment Plant to full capacity; and 2) end the useless and expensive academic investigations it is forcing Sunnyside Gold Corporation (SGC) to conduct.
The EPA continues to run its water treatment plant at Gladstone significantly below capacity, allowing acidic metals-laden water to travel around the treatment plant directly into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. By failing to run the Gladstone plant to its capacity, the EPA has, since October 2015, allowed well in excess of 500 million gallons of untreated water from the EPA-operated Red & Bonita portal and the federally owned American Tunnel portal to enter Cement Creek. It has been calculated that EPA’s failure to run the treatment plant to its full capacity has allowed more than 700,000 pounds of metals to flow into Cement Creek.
The EPA should immediately start running the plant at its full capacity, which will result in substantial improvement to Animas River water quality. There are also numerous feasible, available disposal sites, which could be used for the treatment plant sludge. As Trout Unlimited has publicly said “…[EPA] could bring the already-existent treatment facility at Gladstone to full capacity… This would have an almost immediate and measurable reduction in metals impacting our beloved Animas.”
SGC’s five years of responsible mining and 30 years of reclamation and remediation in the Silverton Caldera have resulted in less metals in the Animas River than would have otherwise been the case. SGC is not the cause of water-quality issues in the Animas River and has spent over $30 million on reclamation and remediation in the district, much of it on properties that SGC never owned or operated. It closed the Sunnyside mine in full accordance with the law, including an EPA-endorsed 1996 consent decree with the state of Colorado, which provides a complete legal defense to liability and any claims against SGC. Moreover, since 2011, SGC has offered to voluntarily contribute additional funds to further improve water quality in the Animas River.
Rather than accept SGC’s offer and make tangible improvements to water quality, the EPA has grossly abused its power by mandating that SGC undertake costly, futile academic investigations. We are, however, still hopeful that our remaining assets can be efficiently utilized in timely, proven and effective solutions to improve water quality rather than pointless studies and litigation.
The EPA should place its commitment to environmental protection over its self-interest and direct assets toward further improving water quality, rather than wasteful litigation and pointless studies. This will require EPA leadership to overrule both EPA lawyers fixated on protecting the agency from liability and entrenched EPA bureaucrats intent on hiding behind endless academic studies and costly smoke and mirrors projects with minimal impacts on water quality in the Animas River.