A toxic legacy — Boulder Weekly

Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015
Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015

From the Boulder Weekly (Caitlin Rockette):

The Western mining legacy

Of the more than 550,000 abandoned mines in the United States, Colorado is home to approximately 23,000 of those, according to the Colorado Geological Survey.

Boulder County sits on one of two mineral belts in Colorado. Known as the Colorado Mineral Belt (CMB), this strip of deposits extends some 250 miles north from the La Plata Mountains in the southwestern part of the state to Boulder County. It is the CMB that bore the lion’s share of the state’s silver and gold deposits.

The majority of Boulder’s mining industry was “hard rock” mining for minerals and precious metals such as gold, silver and tungsten. And while hard rock mining was lucrative, the process of exposing these metals created what has become one of the West’s most enduring environmental concerns — acid mine drainage.

Virginia Brannon, director of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, says that there are about 500 abandoned mining sites that create environmental issues statewide and about 220 of those affect waterways.

“The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of abandoned mine sites are actually just mine openings, and they are a public safety issue — and that’s most of what we have, especially in Boulder County,” Brannon says. “It’s not tailings piled up or soil that’s contaminated or waterways getting contaminated — it’s an old mine opening, and maybe people think it’s cool to go into those when in fact it’s extremely dangerous. Or people fall in — it’s happeend in the backcountry.”

Brannon says there are six abandoned mines in Boulder County with environmental, as opposed to public safety, issues; two have been remediated and have on-going treatment, while four have not been addressed.

“But none of them have direct flows going into waterways as is the case with Gold King,” Brannon says…

Summitville Mine superfund site
Summitville Mine superfund site

Colorado’s share of the burden

The EPA’s website says that as of March 2012, the agency was spending $30,000 per day to treat contaminated mine drainage at the Summitville Mine in Colorado, “which will cost an estimated $170 million to clean up.”

Located in Rio Grande County, just 25 miles south of Del Norte, the Summitville Mine was first excavated around 1870, according to the EPA. However, the area was mined out by the mid-1880s. The site was reopened a number of times in attempts to extract more gold, but traditional mining techniques proved unsuccessful.

The site wasn’t lucrative again until the mid-1980s, when a new company — the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company, Inc. — bought the area and used new techniques to extract gold by treating the ore with a sodium cyanide solution, which pulled gold out of the ore. The valuable metal was extracted from the resulting solution using activated carbon in a large pool known as a heap leach pad.

The EPA claims that a leak was almost immediately detected in the liner of the mine’s heap leach pad.

The state government issued the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company a cease-and-desist order in 1991 after high levels of heavy metals were found in surrounding waters, presumably due to the damaged pad liner in the heap leach pad. The mining company filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and the EPA assumed cleanup of the site, but it would be another three years before the site was placed on the National Priorities List of Superfund sites.

At the time they took over the Summitville Mine cleanup, the EPA estimated that 3,000 gallons of contaminated water were leaking from the site every minute. Troublesome contaminants included copper, cadmium, manganese, zinc, lead, nickel, aluminum and iron, which leaked into tributaries of the Alamosa River and eventually into the river itself. The contamination ultimately wiped out all life across a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River.

This year marks the fourth five-year review of the Summitville Mine site.

Troubling as it is, the Summitville Mine is only one such story of mining contamination in the state. Many of the state’s abandoned mines leak at consistent low levels throughout the year. Some release toxic wastes during the spring melt. Still others release large quantities of contamination in one fell swoop — in the early 1980s, a spill occurred at the California Gulch Superfund site near Leadville, Colorado, killing off aquatic life on the headwaters of the Arkansas River. In 2009, thousands of gallons of Tangcolored mining waste flowed into a 400-mile watershed at the North Fork of Clear Creek, again killing life along part of the river.

With 23,000 abandoned mines, limited funding for cleanups and mining sites located across public and private lands, the possibilities for disaster are daunting.

Big 5 adit
Big 5 adit

Trouble at home

With Boulder’s rich history of mining, the county has shouldered its share of mining’s toxic legacy.

Just a mile and a half south of Ward in Boulder County sits the Captain Jack Mill site at the headwaters of the Upper Left Hand Creek. The site includes a number of mines, the Big Five discharging tunnel, a waste rock pile and a settling pond.

To fully understand the problem at Captain Jack, you have to first understand the flow of water near the site: Left Hand Creek is fed by James Creek, which in turn is fed by Little James Creek.

Little James Creek is currently devoid of life, but full of arsenic, beryllium, copper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc — all mining products. Yet by the time the Little James meets James Creek, just a mile downstream, most of the metals have settled and aquatic life resides. Even further down, where James Creek meets Left Hand Creek, the water is even cleaner — but not before Left Hand Creek gets a dose of polluted runoff from abandoned mines at the Captain Jack site.

All of this is old news: complaints about the quality of water on Upper Left Hand Creek have accumulated since the first days of mining, but the federal government didn’t got involved at the Captain Jack site until September 1986, when the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) found the owners of the site improperly storing chemicals at the mill buildings. The EPA sent an emergency response team to the site. They recovered and removed barrels of chemicals, and then the EPA began testing Left Hand Creek.

But it wasn’t until 1992 that the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Division received reports that mill operators were dumping waste directly into Left Hand Creek. The EPA was alerted soon after when a Boulder County Health Department official noticed a milky substance in the water. Subsequent water samples reveled high levels of zinc, cadmium, copper and lead.

The Left Hand Water District temporarily shut down its intake value while the EPA cleaned up, and the Captain Jack Mill was soon shut down permanently. In 2003 the EPA decided that the risk was too large not to place the mill site on the National Priorities List as a Superfund.

And while all eyes are on abandoned mines in the wake of the accident at Gold King Mine, Brannon from the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety asks people to remember that it was only in 1977 that the federal and state governments created laws to regulate soft and hard rock mining practices.

“People tend to think there’s always a responsible party or there most be some kind of financial assurance or someone we can go after,” Brannon says. “And in these old mines where mining happened before we had laws to restrict their activities, we don’t usually have anyone to go after.”

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

Meanwhile Governor Hickenlooper would request a superfund listing for the area around the Gold King Mine if locals support it. Here’s a report from David O. Williams writing for The Colorado Statesman. Here’s an excerpt:

“The governor would certainly consider making the request [to the EPA] if there is broad local community support,” Hickenlooper spokeswoman Kathy Green said, adding that the governor has had several talks with local officials and the EPA Superfund topic has come up…

The same amount of contaminated water that was discharged suddenly on Aug. 5, when workers breached a dammed mining tunnel, is flowing out of the Gold King approximately every four days and has been for years, according to the EPA, which puts the current discharge rate at between 500 and 600 gallons per minute.

State and federal officials say three more mines near Gold King — Sunnyside, Mogul and the Red and Bonita — are cumulatively discharging more acidic mine drainage, laden with heavy metals such as lead, zinc, cadmium and copper, than the Gold King. That contamination, dating back to the late 19th Century, has rendered the upper drainage devoid of aquatic life.

“Everything’s on the table: EPA Superfund or other remedies,” Silverton Town Administrator Bill Gardner told The Statesman on Wednesday. “We’ve got to find something that works, and the most important thing is that we do it right, and we do it right the first time so this doesn’t become some prolonged study and analysis and not taking action.”

EPA officials say NPL listing, which on average takes about six months from initial proposal if a site qualifies, can bring millions of dollars of federal funding into play for remediation, but it has to have local support.

“The Gold King Mine site has never been proposed to be listed on the National Priority List (NPL),” the EPA states on its website. “At this time we haven’t received any requests from the governor to propose listing this site on the NPL, which we look for as part of the agency’s policy and practice.”

One thing local officials don’t support is suing the EPA, which the Navajo Nation — downstream from the Animas along the San Juan River in northern New Mexico — is preparing to do. Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman also is considering legal action against the EPA.

“Absolutely not,” Gardner said. “I think that’s the worst thing that we as a community could be involved in. What we’re interested in is partnering with the EPA and whatever other federal and state organizations are necessary to find a solution. Legal action is only going to delay any kind of real results.”[…]

Silverton’s Gardner said the EPA is “doing quality work up at the site itself to get us through this winter,” building holding ponds that are slowing the discharge of acid mining drainage so contaminants can settle and pH levels can be lowered. He said town and San Juan County staff will meet with the EPA on Friday to discuss more permanent solutions, such as a water treatment facility or other high-tech fixes for a problem that has plagued the drainage for decades…

“The Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division has very limited authority and funding outside of the Superfund process,” CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley told The Statesman. “The most likely way sufficient funds will be available to address the issue is by listing the site on the NPL.”

Silverton and San Juan County officials are seeking federal disaster funds after Hickenlooper already made an official state disaster declaration, sending $500,000 in assistance.

Professor Mark Squillace, who specializes in environmental, natural resources and water law at the University of Colorado Law School, said the heated political rhetoric needs to be removed from the discussion.

“It’s fair to say that the Republicans have blocked efforts to set up a reclamation fund for these abandoned mines,” Squillace said, referring to the lack of congressional action on the 1872 Mining Act. Proposals to reform the law would establish a system of royalties for mining on public lands and use that revenue to set up a clean-up fund. “If the state were to sue over this, it would tend to politicize an issue that needs to be addressed in a more bipartisan and constructive way than litigation is likely to achieve.”

Squillace adds that Superfund listing could get private mine owners to contribute to the cleanup, easing the burden on taxpayers.

“It’s not just a federal fund that would have pay for the cost of the cleanup, but it’s also private parties that have some responsibility for creating the mess in the first place,” Squillace said.

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