The EPA has a record of releasing toxic runoff from mines in two tiny Colorado towns that dates to 2005, a local mine owner claims.
The 3-million-gallon heavy-metal spill two weeks ago in Silverton polluted three states and touched off national outrage. But the EPA escaped public wrath in 2005 when it secretly dumped up to 15,000 tons of poisonous waste into another mine 124 miles away. That dump – containing arsenic, lead and other materials – materialized in runoff in the town of Leadville, said Todd Hennis, who owns both mines along with numerous others.
“If a private company had done this, they would’ve been fined out of existence,” Hennis said. “I have been battling the EPA for 10 years and they have done nothing but create pollution. About 20 percent (of Silverton residents) think it’s on purpose so they can declare the whole area a Superfund site.”
Like Silverton to the south, Leadville was founded in the late 1800s as a mining town and is the only municipality in its county. Today, tourism is its livelihood.
It’s against this backdrop that the Environmental Protection Agency began lobbying to declare part of Leadville a Superfund site in order to develop a recreational area called the Mineral Belt Trail. The project was officially completed in 2000, but apparently the agency stayed on and continued to work in town.
In late 2005, the EPA collected tons of sludge from two Leadville mines and secretly dumped it down the shaft of the New Mikado mine without notifying Hennis, its owner, according to documents reviewed by Watchdog.
A drainage tunnel had been installed at the bottom of the mine shaft by the U.S. government in 1942, meaning that any snow or rain would leach toxins into the surrounding land.
Hennis said the EPA claims it has installed a treatment pond near the tunnel to clean runoff. The EPA rebuffed his demands to clean up the mess it created in his mine, he said. In frustration, Hennis sent the county sheriff a certified notice that any EPA officials found near his property were trespassing and should be arrested.
Despite that history of bitterness, in 2010, the EPA asked Hennis to grant its agents access to Gold King Mine in Silverton because the agency was investigating hazardous runoff from other mines in the region.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t want you on my land out of fear that you will create additional pollution like you did in Leadville,’” Hennis said. The official request turned into a threat, Hennis said: “They said, ‘If you don’t give us access within four days, we will fine you $35,000 a day.’”
An EPA administrative order dated May 12, 2011 said its inspectors wanted to conduct “drilling of holes and installing monitoring wells, sampling and monitoring water, soil, and mine waste material from mine water rock dumps…as necessary to evaluate releases of hazardous substances…”
When the EPA hit Hennis with $300,000 in fines, he said, he “waved the white flag” and allowed the agency on his property.
So for the past four years, the EPA has been working at the mine and two others nearby – all which border a creek that funnels into the Animas River. One mine to the north had been walled off with cement by its owner but it continued to leak water into Gold King. The EPA installed a drainage ditch on the Gold King side of the mine to alleviate the problem, but then accidentally filled the ditch with dirt and rocks last summer while building a water-retention wall.
That was the wall that burst when a contractor punched a hole in the top on Aug. 5, sending a bright orange stream cascading down. The EPA looked like the Keystone Kops as anger intensified in the media and general public: 24 hours passed with no notification to the lower states or Navajo Nation; the White House ignored mentioning the incident; and it took a week for the EPA administrator to tour Durango downstream, while refusing to visit Silverton itself.
The EPA says cleaning ponds have been installed to leach toxins from the water, and claims that anything released now is actually cleaner than before the spill occurred. The fallout from this disaster in the lower states is still unknown.
Also unknown is the fate of Silverton itself. For months, the EPA has been pushing town leaders into allowing designation as a Superfund site out of belief that the whole town is contaminated. This is something the town has resisted, as its reputation is at stake and no current tests have shown any evidence of toxic soil levels.
“Whenever we hear the word ‘EPA,’ we think of Superfund,” said Silverton Town Board Trustee David Zanoni. “They say, ‘We want to work together.’ That’s B.S. They want to come in and take over. The water up here is naturally filled with minerals. They don’t need to be here cleaning up.”
If the EPA’s litany of mistakes at Gold King mine is a barometer, Zanoni said, handing over the reins of Silverton would be a disaster.
“They had no contingency plan in case all of this went to hell,” he said.
The EPA could not be reached for comment.