SILVERTON—Sunnyside Gold Corporation (SGC), the last major mining operation in the Bonita Peak Mining District around Silverton, Colo, issued a letter on July 9 accusing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of a conflict of interest and of issuing of an “illegal” order that SGC undertake a multi-million dollar groundwater investigation in response to the 2015 Gold King Mine spill the EPA caused.
After releasing more than 3 million gallons of metals-laden acidic mine waste from the Gold King Mine August 5, 2015 that turned the Animas River orange for miles and caused damages to downstream water users as far away as New Mexico, the EPA declared the entire Silverton caldera a Superfund site and appointed itself the lead agency in dealing with water pollution issues in the area.
But up until it caused the Gold King spill, the EPA showed little interest in any sort of oversight or remediation efforts of the hundreds of mines in the ancient volcanic caldera, all of which contribute to high levels of dissolved metals in the Animas River. The EPA took a hands-off attitude, leaving regulation of mine remediation to Colorado.
SGC completed it’s mining operations in the Sunnyside Mine, which is more than a mile away from the long-abandoned Gold King Mine, in 1991, and has since spent more than $30 million and 30 years doing remediation under the guidance and supervision of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and it’s predecessors. After the completion of remediation, the EPA approved of SGC’s efforts in improving water quality by blocking mine tunnels with bulkheads to contain acidic water.
On March 15, 2018, the EPA issued a unilateral administrative order to Sunnyside Gold Corporation to conduct groundwater investigation activities at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.
The original order would have cost SGC more than $5 million.
On June 17, 2019, the EPA issued a “modified statement of work” that increased the burden of drilling monitoring wells and providing vast amounts of documentation on the past history of the Sunnyside Mine.
All the EPA will say about the reasons for the remedial investigation it ordered is that it has “identified” SGC as a “potentially responsible party.”
In an August 2018 email to Complete Colorado, Rich Mylott, EPA Region 8 spokesman said, “SGC has been identified as a potentially responsible party (PRP) at the BPMD site as a current owner and past operator of the Sunnyside Mine.”
The revised order says, “The EPA has determined this work is necessary to fulfill the purpose of the RI for the Bonita Peak Groundwater System.”
Besides additional drilling and monitoring wells, the EPA demands that SGC provide:
• all documentation and reporting of historical operations activities and studies concerning the former mine and appurtenances and contaminants associated therewith pertinent to environmental impacts;
• all mine reclamation plans and reports;
• all environmental sampling and analysis plans;
• all environmental and other data, maps, and photos;
• all reclamation designs and results of reclamation design investigations;
• all as-built plans of reclamation work previously conducted;
• all inspection and maintenance reports of reclamation work previously conducted;
• all reports describing data summaries, data evaluations, or interpretations of data.
The revised order also includes “available data relating to the types and quantities of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants within OU3 and past material management and disposal practices at the Sunnyside Mine and other facilities within OU3.”
OU3 is the EPA’s designation for the Bonita Peak Groundwater System, which includes numerous mines, including the Gold King Mine, that SGC never owned or mined.
The EPA’s new order requires SGC to “support EPA’s initiation and conduct of oversight activities.” In an apparent attempt to prevent SGC from appealing to other agencies such as CDPHE, the new order says, “It is inappropriate for SGC to request ARAR [Applicable or Relevant and Appropriate Requirements] determinations from any federal, state, or local governing body other than EPA arising from work assigned pursuant to the UAO [Unilateral Administrative Order].”
SGC’s response to the new requirements was to state that SGC will no longer cooperate with EPA because it was fully released from all liability for water coming out of the mountain, having completed its required remediation and been released by the courts as part of a consent decree with the CDPHE finalized in 2003.
Disclaiming all “factual, equitable or legal liability in the Silverton Caldera,” the letter says “SGC declines to undertake the work illegally ordered in the Modified Statement of Work.”
Sunnyside’s reclamation director, Kevin Roach, says that the EPA has for three years now refused to run the Gladstone water treatment plant EPA built after the spill at full capacity, and is refusing to put upstream water in the creek contaminated by other federally-owned or controlled abandoned mines like the Red and Bonita Mine through the plant, “instead routing hundreds of millions of gallons of acidic metals-laden water around the plant and into Cement Creek.”
Despite this diversion of water around the plant, Roach supplied Complete Colorado with several independent water quality reports taken downstream from the Cement Creek confluence with the Animas River that prove that SGC’s 30-year, $30 million remediation efforts have improved water quality beyond state requirements. Roach said the EPA is trying to “dilute and evade its responsibility for the Gold King Spill.”
“SGC has improved water quality in the Animas River, has no liability in the Silverton Caldera, has fulfilled all of its regulatory requirements and is in compliance with all of its reclamation obligations,” said Roach in an email to Complete Colorado. “As a result, SGC declines to undertake the work illegally ordered in EPA’s Modified Statement of Work. Enough is enough: EPA has a clear conflict of interest and has wrongfully targeted SGC. SGC will no longer be a pawn in this never-ending science project.”