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The Summitville Story: A Superfund Site Is Born

July 1994

Citation: ELR 10388

Author: Laura Alms, Luke J. Danielson, and Alix McNamara

Editors' Summary: When Congress enacted CERCLA in 1980, it put potential site owners and operators on notice that contaminating sites with hazardous substances can have severe consequences. Four years later, however, at least one company failed to heed that warning. In 1984, the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company, Inc. began operations at the Summitville mine site in Colorado. The result was a classic case of regulatory and corporate failure to prevent environmental disaster. In this Dialogue, the authors examine the reasons for the disaster at the Summitville site. They begin with the history of the site, which has hosted mining operations for over a century, and describe a permitting process that failed from the beginning to address potential site problems. They analyze the regulatory and administrative failures that contributed to these problems and suggest improvements to mining law that could avert similar disasters in the future. They argue that limitations of local mining law were only partly to blame for the Summitville debacle: Deficiencies in federal mining law and inattention by public interest groups also contributed. Federal mining law reform is needed to empower federal agencies to prevent irresponsible mining operations, and environmental groups should divert more resources to monitor the permitting process. The authors conclude that only greater government, industry, and public interest responsibility can prevent another Summitville.

Mr. Danielson is a partner in the Colorado law firm of Gersh & Danielson and Chairman of the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board. He received his J.D. in 1975 from the University of California. Ms. Alms is an attorney at Gersh & Danielson. She received her J.D. in 1993 from Washington University. Ms. McNamara is a Research Assistant for Gersh & Danielson. She received her B.A. in journalism in 1993 from Antioch College.

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