Aspen Times Weekly: Could a mine-waste spill happen here?

Smuggler Mine back in the day via GregRulon.com
Smuggler Mine back in the day via GregRulon.com

From The Aspen Times Weekly (Scott Condon):

Pitkin County has between 600 and 800 mine features, including multiple adits into the same mine, according to an estimate by the Colorado state government. And as Cooper’s experience shows, there are Aspen mines that are filled with water — but just because there’s water, that doesn’t mean it’s contaminated water.

Still, that hefty inventory of adits and shafts makes it reasonable to wonder if something similar to the discharge of 3 million gallons of toxic water from the Gold King Mine near Silverton into the Animas River earlier this month could happen in Aspen (see story, page 33).

State and federal officials as well as miners with street credibility will never say never, but a similar disaster in Pitkin County is unlikely, in large part because of geology, they agreed.

Aspen Mountain’s mines tended to be internally drained to the water table, so “there is generally no significant surface drainage discharges associated with the underground workings,” said Bruce Stover, an official with the Colorado Inactive Mine Reclamation Program. That means there is a “very limited possibility” of underground impoundments of water being formed, he said.

Mines in the San Juan Mountains and other parts of the state have water above the surface. Toxic water was intentionally captured inside the Gold King Mine. It breached when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency undertook a reclamation effort.

Aspen miners tended to encounter water below the level of the water table and Roaring Fork River, said Jay Parker, a partner in the Compromise Mine on Aspen Mountain and a miner and tour guide at the Smuggler Mine.

The water emerging from Aspen’s mines hasn’t been found to be acidic or laced with heavy metals in any testing to date. In one of Aspen’s few hard-rock mine reclamation projects, water in Castle Creek tested similarly above and below where the Hope Mine discharged, according to Forest Service records.

Parker said water draining from the Compromise Mine on Smuggler Mountain feeds ponds where fish thrive and ducks gather.

Local Mine reclamation aimed at safety

Many of Pitkin County’s mines have collapsed, either naturally or by public agencies for safety reasons.

“Our records show we have safeguarded approximately 90 hazardous, non-coal openings in Pitkin County, many of them on Aspen Mountain,” said Stover. Numerous closures have also been completed on coalmines in the Coal Basin and Thompson Creek areas.

The Forest Service typically performs safety closures on three or four mines per year, according to Greg Rosenmerkel, engineering, minerals and fleet staff officer on the White River National Forest. “There are hundreds of mines across the forest.”

The focus of both the Forest Service and the Inactive Mine Reclamation Program is to prevent people from entering an unsafe situation. Old mining timbers have often rotted, making interior travel perilous. Air deep underground can be toxic without proper ventilation.

“It’s almost an attractive nuisance,” Rosenmerkel said of the old mines.

A recent closure was completed earlier this summer at three mines in the high ground beyond Crystal. The typical closure costs $200,000, though no two projects are the same, he said.

Both the Forest Service and Inactive Mine Reclamation Program are focused on finding mines that pose a physical hazard, such as ones located in a ski area or adjacent to a popular hiking trail, and safe-guarding them.

No toxic water impounded

If Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management officials suspect environmental issues, the state Water Quality Control Division is mobilized to test for acidity or metals. If a problem is found, the Inactive Mine Reclamation Program figures out how to solve the problem. If an environmental problem is suspected with a mine on private lands, the Forest Service might be involved if it affects public lands, Rosenmerkel said.

The Hope Mine in Castle Creek Valley warranted remediation while the Ruby Mine in Lincoln Creek Valley has raised concerns but hasn’t been found in need of monitoring (see related stories), according to officials.

Rosenmerkel said there is no situation in the Aspen-Ranger District where water as toxic as that in the Gold King Mine is being impounded.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based nonprofit focused on water quality and quantity issues in the valley, doesn’t specifically test to see how water coming from mines affects rivers and streams in the basin.

“Outside of Ruby, I don’t know if we have a big enough problem or big enough source,” said Rick Lofaro, the conservancy’s executive director.

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