The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a key step toward cleanup at the Gold King Mine and 35 other sites in the Bonita Mining District in southwestern Colorado, putting them on the National Priorities List (NPL) for Superfund cleanup.
The Bonita Mining District NPL will consist of 35 dormant mines, seven tunnels, four heaps of tailings and two study areas located along Mineral Creek, Cement Creek and the Upper Animas River.
These are among 10 new sites nationwide targeted for cleanups — dependent on Congress providing funds. The federal Superfund program involves investigating and cleaning up the nation’s worst environmental disasters to protect human health and the environment, The Denver Post reported.
“Listing the Bonita Peak Mining District on the National Priorities List is an important step that enables EPA to secure the necessary resources to investigate and address contamination concerns of San Juan and La Plata Counties, as well as other downstream communities in New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation,” EPA regional administrator Shaun McGrath said in a prepared statement.
“We look forward to continuing our efforts with the state of Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S Forest Service, tribal governments and our community partners to address the impacts of acid mine drainage on the Animas River.”
The formal designation had been expected, and preliminary work at the Gold King has begun. An EPA–run crew in August 2015, assessing how to open the Gold King as acid metals wastewater built up inside, accidentally triggered a 3 million-gallon spill.
EPA officials on April 7 proposed adding the Bonita district to the priorities list and began a period for public comment.
"The listing does not resolve pending litigation by the State of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation regarding the August 2015 release from the Gold King Mine,” Thaddeus Lightfoot, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney said. “That litigation alleges EPA negligence caused extensive damage to the Animas and San Juan Rivers. However, the final Bonita Mining District NPL listing is significant for three reasons.”
Lightfoot said the listing could pave the way for the use of federal Superfund program funds to investigate and remedy damage in the area; will allow the federal government to investigate adverse effects in the entire Bonita Mining District and wherever hazardous substances released in the district have travelled and that the listing has ended the debate over whether the federal government should use the Superfund program to address contamination in the area.
“Listing the Bonita Peak Mining District is critical to addressing historic mining impacts in San Juan County and our downstream communities,” Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment director of environmental programs Martha Rudolph said in a statement issued by EPA officials as part of their announcement.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton expressed hope for greater collaboration on the cleanup.
“I’m hopeful that with this designation the EPA will continue to collaborate with local, tribal, and state officials and work to protect the local economy, maximizing local employment opportunities where possible, and providing adequate funding to ensure the cleanup begins as quickly as possible,” Tipton said in a prepared statement following the EPA decision.