From the Eagle River Watershed Council (Kate Burchenal):
As we all know, Colorado has a rich and fascinating history of mining that dates back to the late 1800s. Between 1991 and 1999, the Colorado Geological Survey inventoried abandoned and inactive mine sites on National Forest lands across the state. Of the 18,000 mine features they inventories, 900 presented environmental problems significant enough to warrant future study. About 250 of those were found to be causing significant or extreme environmental degradation.
For those of you who read the previous installment of this series and have been thinking that the story of the Gold King Mine and the Animas River sounds familiar, you’re correct. One of these abandoned mines happens to be in our backyard, right here in Eagle County. In 1984, that particular mine spilled thousands of gallons of metal-laden water into the Eagle River. The river ran orange, wiping out fish populations and causing Vail Resorts to blow orange snow on their mountains.
But where our story differs somewhat from the Gold King Mine is that we have been fortunate to have willing partners in the cleanup effort. In some parts of the state, mine owners will spend millions of dollars in court to avoid cleaning up harmful mines; here, those millions have gone to greatly improving the situation.
The Eagle mine has been listed as a Superfund site for the better part of three decades. Much progress has been made in that time thanks to coordinated efforts from entities such as the Eagle Mine Limited, Eagle River Watershed Council, Eagle River Water and Sanitation, CBS (the mine owner), Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The main goal is and has been to treat all contaminated water before putting it back into the Eagle River, and to divert fresh, clean water around the mine so it remains uncontaminated and out of the water treatment plant. The water treatment facility treats 250 gallons of water every minute and removes 251 pounds of metals from the water passing through each day.
That is not to say, however, that the problem has been solved. Quite the opposite actually, since the mine tunnels and metal-rich rocks below Gilman aren’t going anywhere. This is an issue that will be with our community in perpetuity and so we must guard against complacency. We haven’t seen any large-scale, dramatic spills recently, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
Our Best Defense
From here, the best defense we have against a spill like the one at the Gold King Mine is to emphasize existing and augmented preventative measures. While we can’t rule out the possibility of future spills from the Eagle Mine, we can do our best to implement preventative and proactive measures that safeguard our river and our community.
The cleanup contractors have a regular maintenance and monitoring schedule to keep the pipeline – which carries contaminated water to the treatment facility – functioning properly, free of leaks and other issues. This aspect is critical, and very much achievable. Adding in satellite technology will provide remote, real-time monitoring for spills and leaks. This equipment will not eliminate the need for having people on the ground inspecting the mine and pipeline, but rather will provide an added layer of security.
The initial, catastrophic spill from the Eagle Mine in 1984 made the river uninhabitable for the entire fishery that once called it home. Today, hardier fish such as brown trout have returned, while species more sensitive to metals – such as rainbow trout and sculpin – are less prevalent. Though the species diversity is not what we would like to see, this return is a big accomplishment in and of itself.
We have seen this progress because our community pushed for it. The stakeholders in the mine cleanup listened, collaborated and took action. But we can’t pat ourselves on the back too heartily; as a community, we must stay engaged. The Gold King Mine spill is a reminder of what could happen and why we can’t let our guard down.
Kate Burchenal is the education and outreach coordinator for the Eagle River Watershed Council. The council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education and projects.