Acid mine drainage long a problem for the waterways of #Colorado

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Ninety miles west of Denver, 347 gallons a minute of acidic heavy metals leak into a tributary of the South Platte River every day from the defunct London Mine. Not even the bugs that fish eat have survived in South Mosquito Creek west of Alma, let alone the trout local leaders hope to restore for the South Park recreational economy.

The London Mine is one of many that leach toxic materials into Denver’s watershed. Municipal water treatment plants keep contaminants from flowing out taps in homes; ecosystems, however, continue to be poisoned.

For years, state agencies and contractors worked on a cleanup at the London Mine, including installation of a water treatment plant.

But the resurgent discharge into Denver’s watershed shows how difficult cleanup of old mines can be.

“You’re never going to walk away from these things,” said Bruce Stover, director of Colorado’s inactive mine reclamation program. “Things happen inside mines that are unpredictable. Wood can rot. There’s rock stress. Old mines are constantly changing. Gravity rules.

“You cannot just cork these up so it all goes away. That’s not going to happen.”[…]

On Tuesday, state lawmakers at a legislative committee hearing began investigating the broader problem. Colorado health and natural resources officials told them it is so complex that state agencies have yet to prepare a full inventory and assess which mines are most prone to the kind of blowout that occurred Aug. 5 at the Gold King Mine above Silverton…

Other mines in the metro Denver watershed where state records show continuing contamination of streams and rivers include:

• The Perigo Gold Mine near Nederland discharges toxic liquid at a rate of 174 gallons per minute into Gamble Gulch, which flows into South Boulder Creek above Gross Reservoir, according to a March 2015 assessment by the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

In 1993, the Colorado Geological Survey conducted a study of inactive mines on U.S. Forest Service land west of Boulder and ranked cleanup at the Perigo Mine the top environmental priority. In May, backed-up water behind a collapsed portal surged out, spewing several thousand gallons of carrot-orange acid metal-laced water. State records show another blowout in 2011.

• At the Waldorf Mine west of metro Denver, a blowout in 2013 triggered a cascade of hundreds of gallons of orange liquid waste into Clear Creek. State officials said elevated levels of zinc and lead have leaked from this mine for years, about 70 gallons per minute, and records show cleanup is not completed. A mine opening “continually drains and intermittently discharges large surges of contaminated water that erode the mine waste pile.”

• At Geneva Mine above Georgetown, a “belch” in 2013 sent a surge of metals-laced drainage that turned Geneva Creek yellow.

• At the Puzzle Mine above Breckenridge, EPA and state officials have known since 2006 about draining water, at least 50 gallons a minute, laced with zinc and cadmium at levels several times higher than the state standard, records show. A few years ago, Breckenridge residents watched the Blue River turn orange after ice melted inside the mine and pooled contaminants gushed through town toward Dillon Reservoir…

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has supported action to encourage cleanups by shielding companies and conservation groups from liability, but he has not committed to help create a national cleanup fund drawn from mining industry royalties. Heinrich said he’ll press Bennet, D-Colo., and Republican Sen. Cory Gardner for support.

Bennet’s staffers say the senator is supporting efforts to reform the mining law, including charging mining companies royalties to create a cleanup fund and he is “working with” Heinrich and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall.

Environmental groups contend that, beyond liability reform, better funding is essential to deal with the West’s estimated 500,000 inactive mines, which have tainted 40 percent of watersheds at a time when residents increasingly seek more water.

“The federal and state governments should wake up and fix the problem before more spills occur,” said Alan Septoff of Earthworks, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. “This matters because the mines drain acid into water that we use for drinking and that drives economies, like the economy in La Plata County.”

Colorado officials said they do as much as they can with limited legal power and resources.

“We know where the draining mines are, but a statewide prioritization has not been done. That’s something we’re talking about now,” Stover said.

Nor does the state keep a list of mine site owners. Most owners are not “viable” as sources of funding for cleanups, state natural resources spokesman Todd Hartman said. Only the EPA can determine whether “potentially responsible parties” may exist and are viable, he said.

Meanwhile, three or four inactive mines blow out each year, spewing backed-up metals-laced waste into waterways. That’s in addition to trickles and seeps from scores of inactive mines that, by state and federal estimates, inject the equivalent of a Gold King disaster every two days.

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