Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser met with community stakeholders in Durango on Wednesday to discuss possible uses for a $5 million settlement with the federal government. The agreement ends litigation over natural resource damages from mining activity that took place on land now managed by federal agencies.
The meeting was the first of what is likely to be many conversations on how best to leverage the funds.
Participants, who included commissioners from both San Juan and La Plata counties, representatives from the town of Silverton, members of the Bonita Peak Community Advisory Group and other environmental advocates, spent an hour with Weiser.
“My goal here is just to put this on your radar and encourage you to start thinking broadly (about) who else needs to be at the table, (and) what ideas can we think about,” Weiser said. “We’re then going to be in the position to start the process of asking for proposals that we will evaluate over time. We don’t necessarily need to give all the money out right away, it’s more likely that will happen over time.”
Weiser is one of three natural resource trustees who, as a body, are responsible for distributing the funds.
The settlement is intended to address natural resource damages in the area that are related to mining activity beyond what occurred Aug. 5, 2015, when 3 million gallons of mine drainage poured from the Gold King Mine into the watershed, infamously discoloring the Animas River.
The money will also address mining-related damage on land in and around the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site. Specifically, the federal government’s liability stems from the lands under the control of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
“An orange river focuses the mind, but there’s a history beyond that here, too,” Weiser said.
Some attendees, particularly those representing Silverton and San Juan County, lamented the fact that New Mexico and the Navajo Nation had received significantly larger awards for natural resource damages.
“Both La Plata County and San Juan County took a step and a pretty big risk by trying to play nicely with the EPA when this spill happened,” San Juan County Commissioner Austin Lashley told Weiser. “I think, in hindsight, we might look back and choose a different course based on our downstream neighbors and the remediation funding that they’ve been given from the federal government.”
The sentiment is shared by other stakeholders as well, who feel that the rippling impact of the one-time eye-catching flood has been outsized in comparison to the widespread contamination and damage to natural resources around Silverton.
“I think a lot of people are scratching their heads as to why they gave New Mexico as much money as they did,” said Peter Butler, chairman of the CAG, discussing the settlement last week with The Durango Herald. “I think that Colorado went the route of not trying to sue EPA and try to work with EPA and get things to happen and New Mexico took the route of ‘we’re gonna just sue and see what we can get.’”
San Juan County Administrator Willy Tookie also demanded that representatives of Silverton, not just the CAG, have a seat at the table. He stressed that the CAG is largely focused on Animas River water quality, while Silverton’s priorities may lay elsewhere at times. Weiser was receptive to Tookie’s comments and indicated that he wanted a diverse range of stakeholders to provide input.
Although $5 million is dwarfed by the EPA’s spending of over $75 million on the Superfund site, Weiser and the assembled stakeholders indicated that they are committed to finding ways to leverage the settlement as best they can.
Once the EPA leaves the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, further remediation is likely to fall upon local governments.
“Our settlements with EPA are not going to have lasting impacts on our communities,” Lashley warned.