Without abdicating authority, EPA responds to Butler criticism

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Without abdicating authority, EPA responds to Butler criticism

Date: 02/22/2024     Category: News & Media     Author: Reuben M. Schafir     Publication: The Durango Herald    

Original Post ➡️

Water quality expert left role in November citing lack of engagement by federal agency

The Gladstone water treatment facility at the heart of the Bonita Peak Mining District visible from a 2016 EcoFlight. The Environmental Protection Agency is responding to criticisms leveled by the former chairman of the BPMD Community Advisory Group, Peter Butler. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Nearly three months have passed since Peter Butler, the former chair of the Community Advisory Group for the Bonita Peak Mining District, announced he was stepping away from the role in a scathing five-page memorandum criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Superfund process.

And although EPA officials say they are not making changes directly in response to Butler’s memo, which did not contain new revelations, they are meeting with communities and leaders near the Bonita Peak Mining District and addressing some of the concerns Butler highlighted.

For five years, Butler chaired the group that represented the community’s seat at the table as the EPA addresses 48 historic sources of mine waste surrounding Silverton. The district was formally designated as a Superfund site in 2016, a year after the Gold King Mine spill.

In a meeting with La Plata County commissioners and staff Wednesday, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Meg Broughton recognized that the memo was “of concern” for the Board of County Commissioners and said the meeting was an opportunity to revisit some of the topics it highlighted.

Much of the criticism Butler leveled stemmed from a lack of communication between EPA officials and CAG members, Lead Remedial Project Manager Joy Jenkins said.

In the memo, Butler argued that water quality data from Animas Canyon collected by CAG volunteers who hike miles each month to grab samples was neither used nor appreciated; he said that an oft-referenced long-term monitoring plan is not publicly available and lamented what he viewed as excessive spending that has yielded little in the way of results.

“I think that we haven’t done the best job of always circling back with the community groups about how we’re incorporating the feedback they’ve given us,” Jenkins said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “… We haven’t done a good enough job of saying, ‘Hey, we appreciate this.’”

She said the long-term plan Butler referenced is in fact available, albeit by a different name.

The Superfund process, established in the cumbersome Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, is prescriptive and contains few requirements for public engagement, Broughton explained, as she and Jenkins pledged to improve communication.

Butler’s criticism was largely leveled at administrative elements of the Superfund process, rather than the individuals involved.

Broughton said the agency is continually experimenting with new ways to incorporate the community’s input. Butler’s memo was addressed to his fellow CAG members and not the EPA, she pointed out, highlighting that changes in how the EPA engages with the CAG are a part of an adaptive management strategy, not in direct response to Butler.

“We’re trying to engage the CAG and the Silverton Planning Group, which is our other key stakeholder group, in new ways all the time,” she said.

The latest example came two weeks ago, with the arrival of the conceptual site model of the Mayflower Mill tailings piles. The 140-page technical document will help EPA officials devise a solution to address the heavy metals flowing out of mine waste piles.
And rather than share it with the CAG after the fact, EPA officials decided to conduct a simultaneous review of the document and discuss it all together at Thursday’s CAG meeting.

“It’s a great cosmic experiment,” Broughton said. “It could be good, it could be great.”

Federal agencies are not naturally disposed to incorporate public input, Broughton told commissioners Wednesday. And so the high-level of involvement demanded by true experts within the Durango and Silverton communities is unusual, and accommodating it is not baked into EPA culture.

“It’s all experimental,” Broughton said. “This is this is not in a handbook. We’re making it up as we go.”