San Juan County continues to rebound from Gold King mine spill
Writer’s note: For the several weeks we will be focusing on Southern Colorado counties where they came from, what they have to offer and why more Coloradoans should pay them a visit. In this eighth edition we explore Colorado’s least populous county.
San Juan County has the unique distinction of being the least populous of Colorado’s 64 counties. With a mean elevation of 11,240 feet, it is the highest county in the United States.
The county’s largest community is Silverton, which is where the county seat is located and is the only incorporated municipality in San Juan County. Silverton earned its name as a former silver mining camp, which has now become a federally designated National Historic Landmark District: the Silverton Historic District.
With an overall population of 694, San Juan County does not boast a lot of people or diversity. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, San Juan County is 81.7 percent Caucasian with a Hispanic population of 14.3 percent (up from 12 percent in 2010).
Unlike many of Southern Colorado’s counties, San Juan was never overly populous. Though rich for mining silver, it did not enjoy the same coal boom of the 20s and 40s as many of the other counties in the region. Once the prospects of silver mining dissipated in the 1920s, much of San Juan’s population headed for other terrains. Those that stayed saw the population decline from a high point of 3,063 in 1910 to its lowest point of 558 in 2000.
Though small in numbers, San Juan’s residents showed a mammoth amount of resiliency when the county underwent a disaster that garnered national headlines in 2015.
In August of 2015 an estimated 3 million gallons of tainted water burst from Gold King mine in Silverton after an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contractor breached a bulkhead. Over 25 years millions of dollars had been invested into the cleanup of acid mine drainage, but the problem persisted and came to a head.
A public meeting took place in early 2016 to seek placement of 46 mining sites and two studies areas on National Priorities List, known as Superfund, to improve water quality in the Animas river and its tributaries.
“Our main goals are to cleanup the environment, protect our community and our downstream neighbors, and to ensure that a disaster like the Gold King spill never happens again,” said Ernie Kuhlman, chair of the San Juan County Commissioners in a release. “Through our negotiations with the EPA, we will have a seat at the decision-making table throughout the entire process going forward.”
Part of that decision making led to the creation of the Bonita Peak Mining District – as community members did not want Silverton or San Juan County included in the name of the Superfund site. The Bonita Peak Mining District includes 48 inactive mines in the area. In early 2016, Governor John Hickenlooper sent a letter to the EPA requesting support for Superfund designation for the district.
“After working closely with local communities, we’ve identified a Superfund designation as the most comprehensive and sensible means at our disposal to treat mine discharge in the Bonita Peak Mining District,” said Hickenlooper in a release. “We’ll continue to push for meaningful state and local involvement, utilization of the best of the best available technologies and expertise, and ways to mitigate any negative impacts to the local economy.”
Of course much of the collaboration to clean up the Gold King seepage would not have occurred without the persistence of the residents of San Juan County.