By Mark Esper
Sunnyside Gold Corp. has offered to contribute up to $6.5 million to address water quality issues in Cement Creek and the Animas River, including up to $5 million to operate “a cost-effective” treatment plant to process tainted water spewing from mine portals above Silverton.
In an Oct. 4 letter to the Animas River Stakeholders Group coordinators and BLM district manager Lori Armstrong, Sunnyside’s president, Lauren Roberts, said the company “does not view that a Superfund listing would be constructive and would vigorously contest any alleged liability under Superfund.”
The EPA in August announced that discharges of tainted water from a cluster of mines in upper Cement Creek, including the American Tunnel, Gold King Number 7 level, the Mogul and Grand Mogul and the Red and Bonita mines, constitutes a problem serious enough to be placed on the National Priorities List under the so-called Superfund act.
Up to 845 gallons per minute of acid mine drainage pours into Cement Creek from those abandoned mines above Gladstone.
Sunnyside, as a former mine operator in the area, has been identified by the EPA as one of several “potentially responsible parties” that could be held liable for cleaning up the problem if the sites were placed on the National Priorities List.
At an Aug. 18 meeting at Silverton Town Hall, BLM hydrologist Kay Zillich noted the BLM now actually owns the American Tunnel portal and that the agency might be able to come up with funding for a treatment plant — but not for actual operational costs of such a facility.
A 2006 report prepared for the EPA estimated the cost of constructing a treatment plant at between $3.5 million and $4.8 million, with operating costs ranging from $364,000 to $437,000 per year.
Roberts said Sunnyside has spent almost $15 million on mitigation, remediation and reclamation in the area and the company is “pleased to continue to be a partner in the ongoing collaborative efforts to improve water quality and habitats in the Animas River.
“We are hopeful our actions will serve as an impetus for others to expand their commitments to jointly addressing water quality in the Animas.”
The American Tunnel was constructed from 1959-61, extending beyond the Gold King property to the Sunnyside Mine workings. The disastrous Lake Emma flood in 1978 forced the closure of the mine. A treatment plant was commissioned for water discharges from the tunnel in the fall of 1978 and that plant was redesigned and upgraded in the late 1980s.
In 1996 a bulkhead was installed at the American Tunnel portal. But discharges soon began to increase from other mine portals above the tunnel.
The treatment plant at Gladstone ceased operations in 2004 after a complicated court fight. Since then water quality in Cement Creek has been worsening, according to the EPA.
The EPA is currently in the process of determining if there is enough “community support” for the upper Cement Creek sites to be placed on the National Priorities List. Such support is considered vital for the governor to provide the necessary endorsement under the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, the official name of the so-called Superfund legislation.
EPA officials have said they hope to determine by Dec. 20 if there is enough local support to proceed with the listing, which could be made official by March 2012.
Larry Perino, reclamation manager for Sunnyside, said the company “strongly believes that Superfund is the wrong approach. We believe that a local solution involving local stakeholders is a much wiser approach for this community — and our offer is a step to keep that process on track.”
Todd Hennis of Golden, current owner of the Gold King Mine, said Sunnyside’s offer “is a start. It should have been $15 million.”
Sabrina Forrest, site assessment manager for the EPA, said the agency has no comment at this time. She said EPA officials have scheduled meetings with representatives of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the BLM and Kinross Gold Corp., Sunnyside Gold’s parent company, on the matter.
Peter Butler of Durango, one of three coordinators of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, provided the following statement on behalf of the coordinating committee:
“Sunnyside Gold Corp.’s announcement of their commitment to developing a collaborative solution to water quality issues affecting the Animas River is welcome news. There remains a lot of work to be done in determining what practical solutions might look like, where and how they would be implemented, and how all the various stakeholders might participate.
“Sunnyside has worked diligently to address water quality issues in the past and this participatory and monetary commitment reflects their intention to be part of the solution in the future.”