Town Administrator in Colorado an 'Optimist’ in Wake of Gold King Mine Disaster

Water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo.

Water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo. Brennan Linsley / AP Photo


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But Bill Gardner says blaming the EPA for this month's toxic spill distracts from finding real long-term solutions for mine waste.

Bill Gardner, the town administrator of Silverton, Colorado, was on the job just three weeks when 3 million gallons of acid mine waste was accidentally released by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contractors from the abandoned Gold King Mine into a tributary of the Animas River on Aug. 5.

The former La Plata County sheriff and Grand Junction police chief knows a few things about crisis management. And as a “professional change agent” who mopped up messes in his previous jobs, Gardner was hired by the Silverton Town Board before the mine blowout to heal a town divided by an administrative feud and recall election.


Now he’s tasked with not only bringing the isolated, historic mining town of 630 residents back together again, but also finding a way to navigate a raging national debate over how to clean up the thousands of abandoned hardrock mineral mines on federal public lands that are fouling watersheds across the West and impacting struggling local communities.

“I’m an eternal optimist and hopefully something good can come out of all of this,” Gardner told Route Fifty in a phone interview. Gardner noted that he brings a well-rounded perspective to the situation because he used to work in the Sunnyside Mine adjacent to Gold King and because he loves the surrounding San Juan Mountains as the former leader of an outdoor school who met his wife in Silverton in the 1970s.

In fact, they had been retired in town for two years before he was tapped for his new job.

“The problem with a guy with my genetics and brain is I’m used to really being involved with people and helping, and so I was going a little bit stir crazy [in retirement],” said Gardner, 66. “I offered myself and was lucky in a highly politicized, divisive town to get the position and have the background.”

Lucky is a relative term when faced with the challenges Gardner is now dealing with. Silverton sits in a gorgeous valley high—altitude 9,300 feet—in the Rockies of Southwest Colorado, as picturesque as any village in the Swiss Alps. But it’s incredibly isolated—closer to Santa Fe, New Mexico, (260 miles) than its own state capital in Denver (324 miles)—and that has made it largely dependent on tourism.

The era of booming silver and gold mines is now more than 100 years in the rearview, but the toxic legacy of zinc, cadmium, arsenic and lead lives on in the form of acid mine drainage that had rendered Cement Creek and stretches of the upper Animas River devoid of aquatic life long before the most recent spill.

A revival of that aquatic life could be good for tourism—people like to fish for trout in pristine mountain streams—but local officials and residents for decades have resisted EPA Superfund cleanup designation because of its possible stigma for both tourism and mining, and because the Superfund designation lacks clean-up funding.

The owner of Silverton Mountain ski area, embroiled in its own debate over the use of helicopters for skiing on public lands, has in the past opposed Superfund designation for the many mines above Silverton continually leaching toxins into local streams and rivers. But the wildly popular ski resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek clearly have not suffered from Superfund listing of the Eagle Mine that successfully restored the upper Eagle River in the 1980s and ’90s.

Gardner, however, says what once worked in one place may not work in Silverton in 2015.

“The deep concern about Superfunding is I don’t think the public understands that they are underfunded, that they have the national priority list and that there’s just too much on the national priority list that can’t be worked,” Gardner said, instead focusing on disaster relief.

“Please let us avoid the political arguments and the finger pointing,” Gardner added. “That is not productive here. This is a mini-, mini-, mini-Hurricane Katrina—I’m not suggesting the scope is the same—but it is a disaster, so why don’t we look for disaster relief from Congress?”

While focused intently on the situation in Silverton, the only incorporated community in San Juan County, Gardner also wants to help find economic relief for downstream towns such as Durango and the hard-hit farmers in the Navajo Nation of New Mexico and Arizona who have been unable to open irrigation ditches due to the massive yellow-orange discharge.

The long-term solution for the problem of mine-waste leakage in Silverton and all over the West, he says, is complex but achievable if politicians will stop the blame game and get down to business in Washington, D.C.

“Everyone credits the EPA with contributing and solving a lot of problems upstream,” Gardner said of the federal agency that will now be the subject of congressional hearings over the spill. “Another [Silverton] drainage that is a polluter is Mineral Creek, and a lot of good work has been done through the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the EPA.”

Gardner says the closure in 1995 of the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the defunding of the EPA Superfund program has adversely impacted towns like Silverton in the crosshairs of the cleanup debate. Figuring out who should spearhead cleanup is a distraction.

As a public administrator in an historic mining district, the loss of that resource and the loss of funding is part of this problem,” Gardner said. “It’s clear to me that the debate over who is going to administrate and find the solution is contributing to a serious delay in addressing the problem.”

The Animas River in La Plata County after this month's toxic spill. (Courtesy La Plata County)

Legislatively, Colorado’s congressional delegation is split, largely on party lines, between backing a Good Samaritan law that would absolve third parties such as state and local governments, nonprofits and mining companies from long-term liability and totally reforming the 1872 Mining Law to require royalties from companies mining on public lands. That money would create a cleanup fund for abandoned mines.

“We know that these mine cleanups are complicated and expensive, and when we could have a reclamation fee and a reclamation fund that the mining industry itself pays into, why would we instead choose to have local governments and taxpayers pay for that cleanup?” asked Lauren Pagel of the environmental group Earthworks.

Pagel says Good Samaritan legislation by itself—supported by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican whose district includes Silverton and Durango—is inadequate because it doesn’t come with a funding source similar to fees charged every other extractive industry on federal lands, including coal.

But Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, says it’s unfair to charge modern hardrock mining companies to clean up old mining waste from a far more lax regulatory era. And he thinks that modern mining companies, for a fee, should be the ones in charge of cleanup, not the EPA.

“Politicizing this debate is not going to clean up the sites,” Sanderson said. “What happened at Gold King was not the result of a lack of money. It did not result from a lack of funds. It was a breach and a mistake—an accident caused by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Gardner agrees with that sentiment about not politicizing the issue and says Congress should start by passing a Good Samaritan law, but he adds that the EPA has a critical role in the discussion and it’s not helpful to demonize the agency.

“What’s constantly happening in this debate is, ‘We want EPA, or we don’t want EPA.’” Gardner said. “Well, then we’ve avoided talking about the problem.”

David O. Williams is a journalist based in Avon, Colorado.

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