Lightening the load on the Animas
Animas River Stakeholders plug away at cleaning the watershed

SideStory: Celebrating the Animas: Animas River Festival set for June 30 & July 1 in Silverton

Old mines, such as this one in the San Juan Mountains, are the focus of "Good Samaritan" cleanup efforts, such as those undertaken by the Animas River Stakeholders group. Unfortunately, under current law, such groups are not protected from liability in toxic cleanup operations./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

The Animas River has carried much more than water during the last 120 years. Hidden contaminants have been flowing through the local watershed since the turn of the century and earlier – the leach of natural mineral deposits and toxins from hundreds of former mines and their associated waste. One local group, the Animas River Stakeholders, has been working for more than a decade to reduce the metal load and enhance the water quality of the Animas. However, key to future work on the upper Animas will be the adoption of “Good Samaritan” legislation, which would release the stakeholders and other Samaritans from liabilities associated with cleanup.

Bill Simon, Animas River Stakeholders Group watershed coordinator, explained that from its source tributaries in and around Silverton to its confluence with the San Juan River in New Mexico, the Animas River is tainted with heavy metal and acid load. The river contains traces of aluminum, cadmium, iron, copper, magnesium, lead and zinc, among other metals.

“There’s a lot of natural leach, and the river’s been further degraded by historical mining practices,” Simon said. “The river is impacted all the way down to its confluence with the San Juan in New Mexico.”

The Animas River Stakeholders Group is a volunteer organization that was created in 1994 when the watershed failed to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act. It has worked to combine public, private and citizen efforts to improve the water quality and aquatic habitats of the Animas. Thanks to the efforts of the stakeholders and natural changes, the Animas River now meets requirements as it flows through Durango.

“I would argue that the Animas River has better water quality today than at any time in the last 100 years,” said Peter Butler, former Colorado water quality control commissioner. “There has been a great deal of work on the Upper Animas. Not that many people downstream realize that their water is much cleaner because of it.”

Over the years, the stakeholders group has facilitated partial clean-ups on Silverton-area mines with names like Galena, Hercules, San Antonio and Carbon Lake. Of 67 priority mine waste sites in the upper basin, the stakeholders have tackled and reclaimed more than 20.

“What we’re doing is hitting mine waste sites, burying the waste, neutralizing them and getting rid of the metals one way or the other,” Simon said.

However, the upper basin is still in need of big help. More than 30 draining mine adits and shafts remain on the priority list. Without some liability protection, the group will not be able to address the toxic legacy.

“We started with a priority list of 67 sites, and we’ve remediated about a third of them,” Simon said. “But there are still 30 draining adits around Silverton that we can’t do anything about at the moment. We’re trying to figure out a way around the liability issues, but without a Good Samaritan provision or some other mechanism, we can’t really address the remaining draining mine sites.”

In a widely heralded move, the Bush Administration recently trumpeted that it had opened the door to Good Samaritans. Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had cleared the legal roadblocks stopping volunteers from cleaning up abandoned mine sites.

“President Bush is clearing legal roadblocks that for too long have prevented the cleanup of our nation’s watersheds,” said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. “Through EPA’s administrative action, we are reducing the threat of litigation from voluntary hardrock mine cleanups and allowing America’s Good Samaritans to finally get their shovels into the dirt.”

The EPA and volunteer parties will now be able to enter into “Good Samaritan Settlement Agreements,” which will provide key legal protections to volunteers as non-liable parties. The agency went on to proclaim that the agreements should bode well for the clean-up of the estimated 500,000 orphan mines, most of which are hardrock mines in the West.

Simon and the stakeholders take a different view of apparent good news, however. While the new EPA rule will help with reclamation of tailings piles and mine waste, it will do little to help the Upper Animas River or any groups undertaking cleanups related to the Clean Water Act.

“It’s basically smoke and mirrors,” Simon said. “We’ve always had the ability to deal with mine waste. What we need is freedom of liability from the Clean Water Act.”

Butler added that the EPA is taking a noble step forward, but outside of large companies beginning major mine waste clean-ups, the rule change will not create much change.

“The EPA’s doing the best that they can, but the truth is that this really doesn’t have a major impact,” he said. “Draining mines are the big issue around here. They fall under the Clean Water Act, and the EPA can’t waive the requirements of the Clean Water Act.”

The Animas River Stakeholders Group has been pushing for Good Samaritan legislation for much of its existence. The group has forwarded four separate Good Samaritan bill to Congress, but only one of them has made it into committee and failed to go anywhere from there.

“We’re still working on it,” Simon said. “We just went to Washington, D.C., and we’re still pushing our own Good Samaritan provision for the Animas. We’re also supporting national movements to provide protection.”

One such national movement has been undertaken by the Western Governor’s Association. Gov. Bill Ritter and the governors of Arizona and South Dakota recently wrote to the EPA administrator and urged the agency to pave the way for real Good Samaritan legislation.

With this in mind, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the entire Animas watershed will continue to play the waiting game. Unfortunately, the wait may get longer and more difficult in the meantime. Beyond offering no protection to volunteers, the new EPA rule may create more red tape and hinder work on the local watershed, according to Simon.

“I don’t think it’s going to help us at all,” he said. “In fact, I think it’s just going to slow down our process. It’s actually unfortunate because we lose momentum for high quality Good Samaritan protection.” •

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