Constant cleanup key to preserving river — the Vail Daily

Eagle Mine
Eagle Mine

From the Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

For longtime valley residents, the recent mine waste spill into the Animas River near Durango prompted memories of the winter of 1989-90, when the Eagle River through Minturn ran a dull, depressing orange. Its clarity today is thanks to constant work.

The Eagle Mine — located in a tight valley between Minturn and Red Cliff — closed in 1984. After the mine closed, countless gallons of water flooded the mine works and, five years later, into the river, turning the stream orange. Locals were aghast, of course.

When the river ran orange, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had already added the mine to its list of Superfund sites for closely monitored cleanup, but the extent of the problem was still being determined.

CLEANUP CONTINUES

While the river today looks normal — with the exception of some of the orange-tinged boulders in the river — the cleanup continues and will into the foreseeable future.

The “responsible party” for the mine cleanup is CBS, which acquired the mine when it bought Viacom, the previous responsible party. The mine ended up in the hands of those media companies via previous acquisitions and mergers. Today, CBS still pays for much of the work, and will essentially forever. The state and federal governments are also involved.

Because water continues to seep into the mine works — a vast underground network of caverns and tunnels — contaminated water is piped out of the mine and treated at a site at Maloit Park in Minturn. About 250 gallons of water per minute comes out of the mine and is pumped into a facility that allows heavy metals to settle out. About 250 pounds of metallic sludge per day comes out of the water.

Eagle River Basin
Eagle River Basin

PROGRESS

The Eagle River Watershed Council was created out of that environmental disaster. The group, which today looks at the entire length of the river, remains intimately involved in the continuing work at the mine.

“There’s been a lot of progress,” council director Holly Loff said. “But there could always be more.”

The biggest issue today is the age of the equipment, particularly the pipelines carrying contaminated water to the treatment plant. That pipeline, which is above ground in a harsh winter environment, sprung a handful of notable leaks a few years ago. One, in 2009, turned the river orange again for a brief period. Another, bigger spill in 2012 put 428,000 gallons of contaminated water into the river, turning it green.

When word came about those spills, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District shut off the intake to its Avon water treatment plant.

The district’s Todd Fessenden, who is in charge of drinking water treatment and supplies, said the Avon plant was built to accommodate and treat the metals in the river, but not in the concentrations seen when there’s a spill. That’s why the intakes were shut down.

MONITORING THE MINE

Given the complexity of the mine’s treatment system, Loff said it’s important to have more and better monitoring on the pipeline and pumps, since humans can’t have their eyes on the system all the time.

“They’re moving toward real-time remote monitoring,” Loff said.

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District community affairs director Diane Johnson said the district uses remote monitors at many of its facilities, and they work well. One monitor, in a remote area without cell phone service, is linked to a satellite.

At the moment, though, sometimes the district gets some notifications the old-fashioned way — someone in town will notice something about the river and make a call.

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