Frustrated, Peter Butler left the Superfund advisory group

We did not consult the outgoing chairman

Peter Butler, pictured here in 2013 in the so-called kill zone below the Red and Bonita Mine, announced he is stepping down from the Bonita Peak Mining District Community Advisory Group, citing failures by the Environmental Protection Agency. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Peter Butler, a longtime authority on all things Animas River water quality, has it at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The reigning expert on the effects of mine waste on the watershed has announced that he will not seek re-election to the Community Advisory Group he has chaired since it was established five years ago.

The group constitutes the community’s seat at the EPA’s table in discussions of the Bonita Peak Mining District, the Superfund site that surrounds Silverton with 48 mines.

Butler informed CAG members of his decision to leave in a five-page memorandum dated November 30, which he also submitted to EPA and county officials. The document detailed a list of specific examples, in which Butler said the EPA failed to include the CAG.

We were not consulted, he wrote. We have been informed and given an opportunity to comment.

In an interview with The Durango Herald, Butler said the circumstances were likely inherent to working with a large federal agency and blamed the EPA’s closed culture.

The relationship between EPA officials working in the Bonita Peak Mining District and CAG members has always been unique.

The group originated from the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a class of concerned citizens organized in 1994 to address water quality in the Animas River. The area around Silverton was eventually designated as a Superfund site after the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill, and the ARSG disbanded in 2019 after the CAG was formed.

ARSG has a 25-year history of documented successes in addressing water quality issues arising from the region’s historic mining activity. Butler, who holds a doctorate in natural resource management and policy, founded the ARSG, has led the CAG since its inception in January 2019 and has long been recognized as a definitive expert on the impact of mine waste on the watershed.

Because of the extensive knowledge possessed by Butler and his peers, EPA officials attempted to accommodate the community’s unusually high level of interest in the cleanup. Unlike EPA employees, who typically turn over every few years, Butler is among a cadre of experts with lasting knowledge of the watershed spanning three decades.

Although Butler said he likes the current EPA team, the agency’s constant turnover means verbal promises are broken and institutional knowledge is lacking.

Stakeholders in Silverton and Durango have long been wary of the slow progress of the Superfund process and the bureaucratic nature of EPA activity. The ARSG has been praised for its effectiveness and productivity, but liability issues have prevented it from taking on the big issue: proactive demining.

Peter Butler visits the Animas River near the Trimble Bridge on August 6, 2015, as drainage from the Gold King Mine Spill flows downstream. The event led to a Superfund designation around Silverton and the creation of a Community Advisory Group which Butler would chair for five years. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Jerry McBride

The main frustration of the Butlers is the large expenditure of $ 160 million since Gold King, he estimates that there has been very little improvement in water quality.

It’s kind of mind boggling how long and how much they cost, Butler told the Herald.

The construction of a water treatment facility to treat drainage from the Gold King Mine two months after the spill was the only action that had a significant impact on water quality, Butler argued.

In his memo, Butler alleged that the EPA provided no indication that officials had used four years’ worth of water samples laboriously collected by CAG volunteers; the agencies’ goals are broad and poorly structured; and specific remediation requests are ignored by the agency.

The EPA has mentioned on several occasions that they have developed a long-term monitoring plan for BPMD, Butler wrote. Clearly, the CAG is interested in monitoring water quality, but the EPA has never approached to ask for any input in the development of the plan. I can’t find the plan on the EPA Bonita Peak website.

EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Meg Broughton declined to answer specific questions about the Butlers’ accusations and instead provided the Herald with a written statement.

The EPA is reviewing the Peters memo and will work directly with the CAG to clarify and address the issues he raised, the statement read, in part. EPA has always strived for broad and meaningful community engagement at Superfund sites. While the Superfund law and process, as mandated by Congress, can be prescriptive, our team is constantly looking for out-of-the-box ways to engage the community early and often.

He also noted that the EPA is developing additional community engagement opportunities with CAG and Silverton to solicit input earlier in evaluating cleanup alternatives for long-term water quality improvements.

At a meeting with La Plata County officials Wednesday, Broughton said Butler leaving is a big, big blow for us and a big loss.

Ty Churchwell, mining coordinator for Trout Unlimited and CAG secretary/treasurer, said Butler leaves big shoes to fill. Although he shares many of the Butlers’ concerns, Churchwell said the group will continue to work with the EPA toward an eventual repeal.

(Butler) puts in more than his fair share of time, Churchwell said. This is (for) the benefit of all of us who live in this watershed and all of us, in this watershed, have a great debt to him.

Butler will head the CAG until January, but said that even though he is stepping down, he intends to remain in Durango and be available for consultation.

I just feel like I’m spinning my wheels and it’s not really worth my time, she said.

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