Area snowpack improved in April but is back on a melting trend. According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measurement sites, the snowpack level at Copper Mountain peaked at the beginning of April at 12.4 inches of snow-water equivalent — the amount of water held in the snowpack. The snow-water equivalent dropped to 10.6 inches in mid-April and increased to 12 inches by Friday, April 30.
The snowpack has declined in May and is currently sitting at 9.8 inches of snow-water equivalent on Copper Mountain, or 82% of the 30-year median. The upper Colorado River basin, which Summit County falls into, is at 65% of normal snow-water equivalent as of May 10.
“Things aren’t looking so good right now,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bernie Meier said. “We’ve melted out about a third of the snowpack already.”
Meier said cool and snowy days like Monday, May 10, slow down the melting process and add a bit to the snowpack, but overall, he expects the snowpack to remain below normal. He said the snowpack usually melts out between June 10 and 20…
According to the National Weather Service’s almanac, only 9 inches of snow was recorded in April at the Dillon Weather Station — almost half the area’s normal April snowfall of 17.3 inches.
So far, May is closer to average with a total of 3 inches as of Monday morning and more on the way with through the remainder of the storm. Through May 10, normal snowfall for the Dillon station is 3.3 inches.
Though not much snow accumulated, drought conditions have improved in Summit County, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The county is still in a drought, but the severity has lessened to a severe drought in the northern portion of the county and a moderate drought in the southern portion of the county, according to the Drought Monitor’s severity scale. As of April 27, the northern portion of the county was still in an extreme drought.
From the Environmental Protection Agency via Summit County (Brian Lorch):
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking immediate action to perform mine cleanup activities at the Jumbo Mine in Summit County’s Peru Creek Basin, approximately seven miles east of Keystone Resort.
The Jumbo Mine, which produced gold, copper, lead and silver, operated from 1915 to 1918. Historic mine operations also generated significant volumes of waste rock and tailings piles. Inactive and abandoned for a century, the mine site was identified in the early 1990s by EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE), as well as in the Snake River Watershed Plan, as a significant point-source contributor of metal-contaminated flows into Peru Creek and the downstream Snake River.
Historic hard-rock mining in the Peru Creek Basin left a legacy of contaminated and abandoned mine sites, whose acid mine drainage significantly degrades water quality. Much has been done to study the problems in the Snake River watershed, beginning in the early 1970s. Most studies have focused on the Peru Creek drainage, which is home to the Pennsylvania Mine, the largest, longest-operating mine in the watershed. In coordination with Summit County and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS), EPA completed cleanup actions at the Pennsylvania Mine in 2016.
The Jumbo Mine is another high-priority abandoned mine site in the Peru Creek Basin identified by the Snake River Watershed Coalition as a remediation project site capable of significantly improving water quality in the Snake River watershed.
Summit County purchased the land surrounding the abandoned Jumbo Mine in early 2016 for public open space. A restrictive covenant placed on the adjacent property containing the abandoned mine site allows for EPA’s cleanup actions to occur, but also limits the County’s liability for the existing environmental issues and associated cleanup actions.
“We had been looking to acquire this piece of property for a long time, recognizing that it has many open space values,” said Brian Lorch, Summit County Open Space and Trails director. “But before we could take steps to purchase the property, we needed to ensure that it could be cleaned up in an economical manner.”
EPA is implementing the cleanup work as a time-critical removal action under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). Last week, the agency began the work, which it plans to complete in about three weeks.
Cleanup activities involve diverting water draining from a mine adit around or over adjacent tailings piles in a limestone and membrane-lined ditch. According to EPA studies, water quality of the adit drainage degrades as it crosses the mine tailings, contributing high levels of suspended and dissolved lead, zinc and other metals into the stream. Diverting drainage around the tailings into a lined ditch should greatly improve water quality.
“The overall approach will help reduce the discharge of metals into Peru Creek,” Lorch said. “A passive treatment approach at the Jumbo Mine site is quite similar to numerous mine cleanups performed elsewhere by the County.”
Since 2001, Summit County has worked with EPA to identify and prioritize mine sites in need of cleanup in the Peru Creek Basin. The County’s proactive coordination with EPA facilitated recent cleanup efforts at the Pennsylvania Mine and numerous other sites in the area.
“We are really happy and grateful to see EPA continue its mine cleanup efforts in the Peru Creek Basin,” Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said. “The Summit County community is very supportive of our efforts to clean up abandoned mine sites on County property, voting in 2015 for a mill levy that provides funding for cleaning up mine-impacted sites.”
Swiping at the EPA was easy enough, but context matters in river spills
It was the cheap story, and none less than the Economist ran with it this week in recapping the mine spill into the waterways of Southwestern Colorado. “Arsenic and lost face,” was the headline over a short story about the troubles stirred up after a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency breached a dam holding back the Kool-Aid-looking water in the Gold King Mine above Silverton.
Plenty of people piled on the EPA after the Aug. 5 spill. It seems lots of people hate the EPA—and this was before the Clean Power Plan. “To be accused of unconstitutional overreach is unfortunate,” concluded the Economist. “To give proof of incompetence when faced with such an accusation is unforgivable.”
But the Durango Herald may have been much closer to the truth of the situation when, only a day after the fouled waters reached Durango, it described the EPA as the one “left holding the hot potato.”
Indeed, Silverton and San Juan County had resisted a Superfund designation, afraid of the bad publicity for the community. Instead, there had been what the Herald described as a “piecemeal cleanup effort. …It was a compromise and gamble,” the newspaper went on to say. “It failed, but there is a valuable lesson that must not be missed amid the finger-pointing and grieving over a river run foul.”
The lesson along the I-70 corridor in Colorado is that the EPA has managed to achieve cleanups where others have bumbled or done nothing. Consider the Eagle Mine, between Minturn and Red Cliff, just around the corner from Vail. Mining ended there in the late 1970s after a century. The mess was designated a Superfund site. But by the winter of 1989-90, the Eagle River looked much like the Animas River of a couple weeks ago. State officials had signed off on a low-cost gamble of their own, sealing the Eagle Mine. This lower-cost solution didn’t work. Water contaminated by heavy metals in the mine escaped into the river. At one point, snow at the Beaver Creek Resort, manufactured with water drawn from the Eagle River, had a faint orange hue. It wasn’t a year the Denver Broncos were going to the Super Bowl. Then the EPA was called in. Things got fixed—more or less.
That even a well-funded cleanup continues to have problems should be sobering. This week, Todd Fessenden, board president of the Eagle Mine Limited, a group charged with disseminating technical information in ways the layman can understand, sent an e-mail to elected officials in Eagle County assessing the river conditions there, in the wake of the Animals spill.
“What you may not know is that we’ve had more than a dozen spills of heavy metal-laden mine water, or partially treated mine water, in the last 6 years,” he wrote. “Those spills have ranged in magnitude from 0.5 gallons per minute to 428,000 gallons over a 23-hour period. I’ve personally seen the Eagle River run green and the same shade of orange the Animas turned in the last 6 years.”
Still, the river is much better now. Vail seems to have survived just fine, despite the presence of the EPA.
In Summit County, the Pennsylvania Mine was a long-time mess. It’s in Peru Gulch, not far from the A-Basin ski area, and upstream from Keystone. The original miners had been gone many decades. A couple had purchased the property for back taxes but, realizing the problems, couldn’t unload it. Nobody else would touch it either, because of the liability if something went wrong.
But progress has been made in recent years. The mine less than a decade ago was running red downstream to Keystone and into Dillon Reservoir. It was, as the Summit Daily News noted in a story last week, long one of the most toxic abandoned mines in the state.
Again, the EPA’s involvement was crucial for making progress. By stepping in, explained Paul Peronard, the EPA’s on-site coordinator at the Pennsylvania Mine, the EPA takes on liability. With the EPA involved, the state will step in and do work, too. “When bad things happen, it becomes the EPA’s fault,” he explained.
And things can go wrong. “It’s like working on the bomb squad. You have a set of techniques, but, every now and then, the bomb goes off,” he said.
Jeff Graves, the senior project manager for the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said the potential for a “catastrophic release, surge event, whatever you want to call it, will be significantly reduced if not eliminated” by late September.
The Pennsylvania Mine currently puts 12,000 pounds annually of zinc into Peru Creek. No fish can be found in the creek nor in the Snake River downstream as far as Keystone, where the pollution is diluted. But if not as bad as the Pennsylvania Mine, more than 100 abandoned mines remains in the Snake and Blue River watersheds.
Reviewing the Animas pollution, Wyatt laments the “finger-pointing without putting what happened (at Silverton) into context.” The mining history above Silverton was difficult, with the mines interconnected and covering a broad area.
Lynn Padgett, a geologist, has been studying abandoned mines in the San Juan Mountains since 1990. Elected a Ouray County commissioner in 2009, but has kept after her interest, most recently appearing before a committee of Club 20 meeting in Lake City in support of Good Samaritan legislation.
Good Samaritan legislation would allow third parties to step in and clean up a mine site without incurring liability if something goes wrong, such as occurred at the Gold King Mine, as specified by the Clean Water Act. By Padgett’s rough count, there have been 15 different pieces of legislation have been introduced into Congress over the years—and all have foundered.
“The Clean Water Act is ironically a barrier to having clean water,” she says.
Padgett remembers going to the Gold King Mine in 2012 with then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, who had worked to move Good Samaritan legislation. As had several other congressional representatives. The problem always ends up being a concern about potentially responsible individuals being allowed to get duck their responsibilities.
The current proposal is being pushed by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton. The legislation would create pilot projects. Other counties have been asked to lend support, and a letter from Pitkin County Commissioner Rachael Richards asks that the pilot be broadened to include the hard-rock mineral belt of Colorado, specifically including Eagle, Gunnison, Pitkin and Summit counties.
Padgett says the Gold King Mine doesn’t provide a good argument against mining. It and most of the other old mines pre-date modern laws that govern mining. “Our problem is these very old, historic mines,” she says.
Did the EPA truly mess up, as critics say, or was it, as the Durango Herald said, the party left holding the hot potato? Padgett says she’s waiting to get more information.
But like Wyatt and many others, she’s worried that too many will draw the wrong less from Gold King and the Animas, calling for reduced funding of the EPA by Congress. “That would be the wrong answer,” she says.
On Friday, Oct. 17, Stiegelmeier was one of several federal, state and local officials marking a milestone for the centerpiece of the county’s current mining cleanup efforts — plugging the Pennsylvania Mine.
About 8 miles east of Keystone, the abandoned mine is Summit County’s biggest mess. The mine, considered the worst in the state, spews toxic heavy metal concentrates and acidifies water flowing into the Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River, which feeds Dillon Reservoir. Peru Creek is without fish, insects or other aquatic life. The Snake River has life, but it’s sparse and found only in the lower reaches. In 2007, a burp of acidic water from the abandoned mine killed fish all the way to Keystone, county officials said.
This past week, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety finished installing one of two bulkheads, massive plugs of concrete and steel built about 500 feet inside the mine.
According to project manager Jeff Graves, once both bulkheads are installed, toxic burps and blowouts will be a thing of the past.
“That won’t happen again — it can’t,” he said.
The bulkheads prevent water from flowing through the mine. Water will back up inside, reducing the amount of oxygen the metals and sulfides are exposed to, which should improve water quality.
Though the more than $3 million project still has far to go, reclamation efforts seem to have had positive impacts already. Last year, the Peru Creek turned reddish-orange seven or eight times. That hasn’t happened once this year.
In addition to the bulkheads, new drainage ditches channel water away from waste-rock piles. Those piles have been capped. Eventually, they’ll be revegetated. Limestone has also been strategically added to raise the pH of the water, which could help filter out metals into settlement ponds.
Organizations involved in the project include: the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, Summit County Open Space and Trails, Northwest Council of Governments, the Snake River Watershed Task Force, the Blue River Watershed Group and the Keystone Center.
Here’s the release from the United States Geological Service (Nancy J. Bauch, Lisa D. Miller, and Sharon Yacob):
Water quality of streams, reservoirs, and groundwater in the Blue River watershed in the central Rocky Mountains of Colorado has been affected by local geologic conditions, historical hard-rock metal mining, and recent urban development. With these considerations, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Summit Water Quality Committee, conducted a study to compile historical water-quality data and assess water-quality conditions in the watershed. To assess water-quality conditions, stream data were primarily analyzed from October 1995 through December 2006, groundwater data from May 1996 through September 2004, and reservoir data from May 1984 through November 2007. Stream data for the Snake River, upper Blue River, and Tenmile Creek subwatersheds upstream from Dillon Reservoir and the lower Blue River watershed downstream from Dillon Reservoir were analyzed separately. (The complete abstract is provided in the report)
From the Summit Daily News (Alli Langley/Joe Moylan) via the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:
During the silver mining boom of the 1870s, with a population of just 71, Sts. John was for a short time Summit County’s largest town.
The Summit County Open Space and Trails Department recently bought the abandoned townsite and nearby mining claims for $425,000 from the Tolen family, which owned land in the area since the 1950s.
The purchase, finalized July 28, conserves about 90 acres in the Snake River Basin above the town of Montezuma as public open space. The 18 separate parcels have significant wildlife value, according to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the U.S. Forest Service and the Snake River Master Plan.
“We are incredibly grateful to the Tolen family for working closely with the Summit County Open Space program to preserve the heritage of Sts. John and this exquisite landscape for the enjoyment of Summit County citizens and visitors alike,” said Brian Lorch, the program’s director. “This is one of the most important and significant acquisitions the program has made in recent years.”
The county acquired the properties using the Summit County Open Space fund, approved by voters in 2008. Breckenridge Ski Resort contributed $25,000 toward the purchase as part of a deal with environmental groups worried about the impacts of the recent Peak 6 development.
With the acquisition, the county will protect a large portion of the Snake River Basin backcountry and preserve a piece of Summit County history. Lorch said the Sts. John properties are highly valued for their intact historic resources, popularity for outdoor recreation and high-quality wetlands and wildlife habitat…
The Summit County Open Space program acquires lands to protect the scenic beauty, natural habitat, backcountry character and recreational opportunities in Summit County. Funded through property tax mill levies approved by Wvoters in 1993, 1999, 2003 and 2008, the program has protected more than 14,000 acres of open space.
About 8 miles east of Keystone and a couple of miles south of the 14,000-foot-plus Grays and Torreys peaks, the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine is considered the worst mine in the state. The mine adds toxic heavy metal concentrations and acidifies water flowing into the Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River, which feeds Dillon Reservoir.
A three-year, $3 million cleanup project aims to stop that pollution. The project could serve as a model for future mine reclamation efforts around the state, said Paul Peronard, on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The collaborative effort is currently under budget and ahead of schedule, he said, even with the added cost of helping Summit County fix the part of Montezuma Road that washed away in early June.
“This is very much a huge partnership,” said Jeff Graves, senior project manager with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
For decades, government agencies and other interested parties faced issues of liability and funding when trying to tackle the mine’s cleanup.
“It’s quite a conundrum,” said Lane Wyatt, a water-quality expert with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. “The problem is you don’t really have anybody to point your finger to in places like this to say, ‘You’re responsible. You got to go clean this up.’ ”
This year the state is working to place one of two bulkheads, or giant concrete plugs, about 500 feet inside the mine. The bulkheads will block water from leaving through one large entry and stop water from flowing freely through the mine, Graves said.
Throughout August, [Martin McComb], the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-scene coordinator, and his team have been diverting the main flow of heavy-metal-laden water coming from the mine away from the poisonous tailings piles. Environmental protection workers also set up a treatment system that raises the PH of the water in an effort to force some of the metals to drop out of it into a settlement pond before heading downstream. “It’s all about reducing the amount of pollution that flows into the creek,” McComb said. “We are dealing comprehensively with what’s on top of the ground as well as what’s below the ground.”[…]
McComb’s EPA team is embarking on phase one of a six-phase cleanup project at the site. In addition to water treatment efforts, the group has spent the past month improving road conditions to allow dump trucks and other heavy machinery access to the site. The cleanup is expected to take three years and will involve numerous agencies, including the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, Summit County, the U.S. Forest Service, the Blue River and Snake River watershed groups and Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. “It’s nice to see there are so many people involved in this project and in this watershed. I think it’s because it’s such a beautiful area, and near where so many people are living,” McComb said. “I hope we can make an impact — and think we already have.”
Cleanup efforts taken under the project plan will be phased over the next several years and will address threats from acidic discharge that is draining from the mine and tailings along with other mine waste found on the surface.
The bulk of the underground mine work will be conducted under the supervision of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety. This summer, contractors under the supervision of senior project manager Jeff Graves are digging out a collapsed portion of earth that flooded the culvert in the mine’s portal F, and are working to gain easier access into the underground portions of the mine. “They are really knowledgeable about underground work and have a lot of experience,” McComb said. “For us, it’s a good way to partner with people who are specialized and really know what they’re doing.”
Pennsylvania Mine bleeds heavy metals, or acid mine drainage, into Peru Creek and the Snake River. The Snake flows into Dillon Reservoir — a major water source for the Front Range.
The mine operated from 1879 through the early 1900s. Like many mines in the area, it sits in a pristine alpine valley. Today the Peru Creek valley, eight miles to the east of Keystone, serves as a year-round destination for recreation.
The mine is one of the largest contributors of human-caused heavy metal in the Snake River Watershed. Contaminants include aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc. Exposure to these metals can cause irreversible and lifelong health problems in humans and wildlife.
This summer, the EPA will prep infrastructure to allow heavy equipment into the mine site in hopes of cutting off pollution sources. Meanwhile, the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mining Safety will continue underground investigations to pinpoint where the toxic metals are originating and decipher which techniques should be used to best clean up the site…
EPA on-scene coordinator Paul Peronard expects the mine cleanup project to take place over three years, and cost about $3 million. Progress will be made in “finite, bite-size chunks,” he said…
Workers drilled holes into the ground and used a borehole camera to inspect the inside of the mine. The state-of-the-art technology was combined with maps from the 1920s to create a blueprint of the mine site…
Stakeholders then came up with a portal rehabilitation project. They dug and cut their way into the mine and installed very large culverts into two mine portals. The work required climbing through “hobbit holes” and dealing with 2 feet of muck, but it allowed researchers to get data about the amount of flow and level of contaminants coming through the F and C portals of the mine — where the bulk of the cleanup work will be done. The water found was “pretty nasty stuff.” The substance was a rusty orange color — very similar to the hue of the excavators on site. Geologists and engineers used dye to track water flows, created settlement ponds and revegetated disturbed areas…
In June, workers will prepare the mine site and stabilize the portals so more detailed underground investigations can be made. Geological engineer Graves’ plan is to install inner and outer bulkheads at the mine. The problem workers have with sealing waterways is a lack of rock and other landmass on top of the mine to contain underground water pressure, he said…
In addition to installing bulkheads in 2014 and 2015, stakeholders plan to cap waste and tailing piles in place with topsoil and vegetation to prevent erosion and contaminants from leaching. Any significant surface water pathways discovered during the underground investigations will also be sealed.
From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):
Nearly a century after miners finished digging millions of dollars worth of silver, lead and zinc out of the Pennsylvania Mine, heavy machinery will once again rumble through the high alpine Peru Creek Valley. But instead of burrowing deep into the ground to find precious metals, the workers this time will be trying to clean up the big mess left behind when the mine was abandoned. For decades, water coursing through the mine shafts has been dissolving minerals, resulting in acid mine drainage that pollutes Peru Creek and the Snake River. Concentrations of some metals, especially zinc, are high enough to kill trout…
The cleanup is a partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and Summit County. For more information about the project please visit: http://www.snakerivertaskforce.org.
More Snake River Watershed coverage here and here.
Here’s the release the United States Geological Survey (Heidi Koontz/Jim Scott):
Warmer air temperatures since the 1980s may explain significant increases in zinc and other metal concentrations of ecological concern in a Rocky Mountain watershed, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, led by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Rising concentrations of zinc and other metals in the upper Snake River just west of the Continental Divide near Keystone, Colo., may be the result of falling water tables, melting permafrost, and accelerating mineral weathering rates, all driven by warmer air temperatures in the watershed. Researchers observed a fourfold increase in dissolved zinc over the last 30 years during the month of September.
“This study provides another fascinating, and troubling, example of a cascading impact from climate warming as the rate of temperature-dependent chemical reactions accelerate in the environment, leaching metals into streams,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “The same concentration of metals in the mountains that drew prospectors to the Rockies more than a century ago are now the source of toxic trace elements that are harming the environment as the planet warms.”
Increases in metals were seen in other months as well, with lesser increases seen during the high-flow snowmelt period. During the study period, local mean annual and mean summer air temperatures increased at a rate of 0.2-1.2 degrees Celsius per decade.
Generally, high concentrations of dissolved metals in the upper Snake River watershed are the result of acid rock drainage, or ARD, formed by natural weathering of pyrite and other metal-rich sulfide minerals in the bedrock. Weathering of pyrite forms sulfuric acid through a series of chemical reactions, and mobilizes metals like zinc from minerals in the rock and carries these metals into streams.
Increased sulfate and calcium concentrations observed over the study period lend weight to the hypothesis that the increased zinc concentrations are due to acceleration of pyrite weathering. The potential for comparable increases in metals in similar Western watersheds is a concern because of impacts on water resources, fisheries and stream ecosystems. Trout populations in the lower Snake River, for example, appear to be limited by the metal concentrations in the water, said USGS scientist Andrew Todd, lead researcher on the project.
“Acid rock drainage is a significant water quality problem facing much of the Western United States,” Todd said. “It is now clear that we need to better understand the relationship between climate and ARD as we consider the management of these watersheds moving forward.”
In cases where ARD is linked directly with past and present mining activities it is called acid mine drainage, or AMD. Another Snake River tributary, Peru Creek, is largely devoid of life due to AMD generated from the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine and smaller mines upstream, and has become a target for potential remediation efforts.
The Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, in conjunction with other local, state and federal partners, is conducting underground exploration work at the mine to investigate the sources of heavy metals-laden water draining from the adit. The study conducted by Todd and colleagues has implications in such efforts because it suggests that establishing attainable clean-up objectives could be difficult if natural background metal concentrations are a “moving target.”
Collaborators include USGS, CU Boulder and the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR). The data analyzed for the study came from INSTAAR, the USGS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
From the Summit Daily News (Paige Blankenbuehler):
Rising concentrations of zinc and other metals in the upper Snake River west of the Continental Divide near Keystone may be the result of falling water tables, melting permafrost and accelerating mineral- weathering rates — all driven by warmer air temperatures in the watershed…
High concentrations of dissolved metals in the upper Snake River watershed are the result of acid rock drainage, according to the research. The drainage is a result from past and present mining activities.
From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):
One part of the planned work involves moving some of the waste rock from the mine away from running water, a technique that has proven successful in other remediation projects. A collaborative task force including local, state and federal stakeholders have been grappling with the pollution for years, as cost estimates for a cleanup have soared.
This summer, the various parties collaborating on the cleanup will also try to enter the old mine itself to try and figure how water moves through the shafts and tunnels. That may help the experts figure out if they can permanently block the water coming out of the mine with a bulkhead, according to Lane Wyatt, a water expert with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. “That’s the big thing, is opening up the Penn Mine … that’s kind of exciting, going in see what’s going on in there. That might help us develop some remedial options based on more than just guessing,” Wyatt said.
Other potential remediation options include a water treatment facility, or perhaps even trying to block or divert water before it gets into the mine.
“The Forest Service has been involved in looking for ways to clean up the Penn Mine for many years. This is a great step forward,” said acting Dillon District Ranger Peech Keller.
More Snake River watershed coverage here and here.
From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):
Beautiful as Saints John Creek may look, it’s heavily polluted with cadmium, copper, lead and zinc that leaches into the water from weathered waste rock and from the underground workings of the former mine. Concentrations of some of the metals, especially zinc, are so high that the water is deadly to fish and to the aquatic bugs they feed on. As a result, the short stream segment has been listed as impaired since 1998.
This summer, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety plans to start cleaning up the mess with an ambitious $500,000 restoration project that involves moving some of the exposed tailings away from the water to an upland repository, where they’ll be capped and covered with native vegetation.
State officials may also divert some of the water pouring out of an old mine opening to prevent the water from coming in contact with the weathered rock. Altogether, they hope the work will reduce the amount of dissolved zinc in the water by about three pounds per day. Zinc is particularly toxic to trout, impairing their ability to breathe.
Here’s a recap of the State of the River meeting held yesterday in Frisco, from Bob Berwyn writing for the Summit County Citizens Voice. Here’s an excerpt:
With an early March meltdown of the snowpack and continued above-average temperatures, the outlook isn’t good, said Blue River water commissioner Troy Wineland, warning that the entire state and region are facing a severe drought. “The time for action is now,” Wineland said, speaking at the annual State of the River meeting in Frisco, co-sponsored by the Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Blue River Watershed Group. Wineland commended Denver Water for its early Stage 1 drought declaration and urged the local water community in Summit County to get on the same page with conservation measures. An inconsistent response to the drought could send the wrong message to residents and visitors, he added.
While reservoir levels are still higher than average, many high country reservoirs aren’t likely to get much fuller than they are now, said Bob Steger, manager of Denver Water’s raw water supply. “My best guess is we won’t fill Dillon Reservoir,” Steger, said, pointing to a graph that suggested Dillon won’t climb much above the level it was as of May 8.
From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):
Frequently, acid rock drainage from natural sources and mine sites combine to cause severe downstream water quality problems. In these situations it is important to distinguish the natural, or background, water quality so that realistic clean- up goals for water quality can be set.
Peru Creek and the Snake River are a perfect example of this combination. The abandoned Pennsylvania Mine is thought to contribute a significant amount of acid mine drainage to water that is already tainted. As a result, the water downstream is toxic to trout and other aquatic organisms. Various agencies and groups have been wrestling with cleanup scenarios for decades.
The research explains that rocks in parts of Colorado’s mineral belt were altered by intensely hot water circulating in the earth’s crust, often associated with volcanic activity during Colorado’s geologic past.
These hydrothermal alteration changed the composition of the rocks by dissolving some minerals and depositing others.
In the affected areas, the process deposited metal-sulfide minerals, commonly pyrite (fool’s gold), in the rocks. When these rocks are exposed at the surface, they interact with oxygen and the iron sulfide “rusts” to form iron oxide minerals, creating striking yellow, orange, and red colors — similar to the oxidation of metal in an old rusty car.
Acid rock drainage occurs when the sulfur that is displaced by the oxygen combines with water to form weak sulfuric acid. The acidic water then dissolves minerals from the bedrock, often adding significant amounts of dissolved metals to these headwater streams. Natural acid rock drainage has been active in Colorado for thousands, possibly millions of years.
The mine is among nearly 400 others in the area, but is the main target for stream improvements that don’t involve actually treating the water — cost and liability assumed under current law inhibits a third-party treatment system. “We see a noticeable spike (in zinc concentrations) when Peru Creek runs by the Pennsylvania Mine,” said Ryan Durham, remedial project manager with the Environmental Protection Agency…
Some experts contend that the hillsides above Peru Creek are rich with metals that leach naturally, but most officials on this particular project agree that while there may be natural metal deposits occurring to make the creek a consistently uninhabitable place for fish, it’s likely the mine is a big player in sending metals downstream and causing low pH in the water. Downstream, in the Snake River above the Dillon Reservoir, the water is diluted enough by clean stream inflows for fish to live and reproduce…
The proposed next step should allow further investigation of the amount of water that actually discharges from the mine (including groundwater sources), where and in what condition the water enters the mine, flow paths within the workings, and the accessibility of the mine’s innards. The end goal is finding a feasible control remedy. Proposed solutions currently include building a bulkhead to protect against surge events, sealing entry sources so clean surface water isn’t contaminated and, separating clean water paths from dirty water paths to consolidate the waste.
Nearly 2,000 miles of waterways in Colorado are affected by acid rock drainage, said Diane McKnight, who co-authored the study. “Spring runoff is happening longer,” Shaw said, which means the water runs slowly into the ground instead of along its surface in one spring melt. It passes over mineralized rocks, leeching the minerals into the streamflow as it moves. Crouch said the earlier snowmelt also means drier streambeds in September and October, which could increase metal concentrations. It’s a smaller scale of what was observed during the 2002 drought, in which prolonged dry conditions allowed the harmful chemical reactions to occur in areas where water once was, and will be again.
The study focused on the Snake River watershed just west of the Continental Divide near Keystone, Colo., where CU-Boulder researchers have observed a four-fold increase in dissolved zinc over the last 30 years during the lowest water flow months, said Caitlin Crouch. Crouch, a master’s degree student who led the study, said the high levels of zinc affect stream ecology, including deleterious effects on microbes, algae, invertebrates and fish. The team speculated the increased zinc concentrations may be tied to changes in groundwater conditions and stream flow patterns caused by climate change and the associated snowmelt that has been peaking two to three weeks earlier than normal in recent years, largely because of warming air temperatures. The result is lowered stream flows and drier soils along the stream in September and October, which increases metal concentrations, said Crouch. “While most of the talk about climate change in western waterways is about decreasing water quantities, we are evaluating potential climate influences on water quality, which is a whole different ball game,” she said…
The zinc in the Snake River watershed is primarily a result of acid rock drainage, or ARD, which can come from abandoned mine sites along rivers or through the natural weathering of pyrite in the local rock, said Crouch. Sometimes enhanced by mining activity, weathering pyrite forms sulfuric acid through a series of chemical reactions, which dissolves metals like zinc and carries them into the groundwater. McKnight, also a fellow of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, said there are nearly 2,000 miles of waterways in Colorado affected by ARD…
The elevated zinc in the Snake River comes from several ARD sources, said Crouch. Crouch’s study site — where an increasing trend in zinc concentrations is sustained by groundwater discharge — is above the Peru Creek tributary to the Snake River, where natural pyrite weathering is thought to be the main source of ARD. Peru Creek is largely devoid of life due to ARD from the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine and other smaller mines upstream and has been a target for potential remediation efforts.
McKnight said another factor involved in rising zinc levels in the Snake River watershed — which runs from the top of the Continental Divide to Dillon Reservoir — could be the result of the severe 2002 drought in Colorado. The drought significantly lowered waterways, allowing more pyrite to be weathered in dry soils of the watershed and in wetlands adjacent to the stream.
More Snake River watershed coverage here and here.
From email from the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Martha Moore):
The Colorado River District is accepting grant applications for projects that protect, enhance or develop water resources within the 15-county area covered by the District. This includes all watersheds in north- and central- western Colorado, except the San Juan River basin.
Eligible projects must achieve one or more of the following:
– develop a new water supply
– improve an existing system
– improve instream water quality
– increase water use efficiency
– reduce sediment loading
– implement watershed management actions
– control tamarisk
– protect pre-1922 Colorado River Compact water rights
Past projects have included the construction of new water storage, the enlargement of existing water storage or diversion facilities, rehabilitation of non-functioning or restricted water resource structures and implementation of water efficiency measures and other watershed improvements. Such projects that utilize pre-1922 water rights will be given additional ranking priority over similar projects that do not. Each project will be ranked based upon its own merits in accordance with published ranking criteria.
Eligible applicants can receive up to a maximum of $150,000 ((or approximately 25% of the total project cost whichever is less, in the case of smaller projects this percentage may be slightly higher) for their project. The total grant pool for 2011 is $250,000. Application deadline is Jan. 31, 2011.
The program aims to engage students in the process of dealing with a socio-environmental issue from varying points of view. In this instance, students learned about mining and water quality issues surrounding the Pennsylvania Mine and the Snake River Watershed…
After learning about the issue, students were accompanied by Keystone Science School educators to local bodies of water such as French Creek, Miner’s Creek and Tiger Dredge to take water samples. Students tested the samples for heavy metals or abnormal pH levels and compared their results to samples tested by Colorado Mountain College. Field work proved to be the students’ favorite part of the program. “Going out and testing the water was the best part,” said SMS student Elle Dice. “It was kind of cold, but it was fun.”[…]
After reviewing the results, students played the parts of stakeholders to the Pennsylvania Mine situation. Roles included county commissioners, biologists, environmental protection agency representatives and Montezuma residents, among others. In a mock town hall meeting, the students recommended a solution based on the perceived motivation of their stakeholder role. The students widely agreed that bioremediation — the use of natural filtration systems to absorb heavy metals — was the best solution to the problem. Next spring some of the students will return to the creeks from which the samples were taken to plant willow seeds and enact other forms of bioremediation to the affected water flows…
For more information about the Keystone Science School and the Education in Action program, visit www.keystone.org/cfe/kss or e-mail Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Board of Water Commissioners will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, as well as again next Wednesday, before voting on the proposal. The plan calls for an average increase for next year of $41 per year for Denver customers, or an increase of about $3.40 per month. The increase would be more than 10 percent for next year and comes as Denver Water officials warn that consumers may see an increase of 31 percent over the next three years. If approved, the increased water rates would take effect in March 2011.
Suburban residential customers would see an average increase of about $2.66 per month, or about $32 per year.
The proposal has already made a splash with Denver City Council members – but not the kind of splash that Denver Water would have liked. In addition to raising concerns over the impact a rate increase could have on constituents, Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz took the opportunity last month to raise questions over the organization of the Denver Water board itself.
Currently, the Board of Water Commissioners is a five-member board that is appointed by the mayor of Denver. Faatz questioned whether it wouldn’t be a better idea to switch to a board that is elected by the people, to perhaps better represent the interests of voters.
“Our same people are paying these rates and they have definitely let us know that they are not interested in increased taxes and we have tried to listen to that and be responsive, and they’re not interested in higher fees, and yet you all just pretty much as an enterprise get to set what you set and charge them,” Faatz told Denver Water officials at a City Council briefing last month.
The award was announced at the SDA Annual Conference which was held in Keystone, September 22-24. Bill has been instrumental in supporting policy implementation for the District which pertains specifically to the District’s water rights and future water supply. Bill supports district administrators by striving to keep water rates affordable while encouraging capital projects that increase the quality of service. When asked to share their feelings about Bill, the District staff said, “Bill is a remarkable Board member. His ability to discern a solution, render advice with inflection and simplify a problematic situation makes working with him a pleasure. Under no circumstances does Bill convey judgment or carry a personal agenda into the boardroom. Bill brings a sense of humor into any conversation which incites just the right amount of comic relief into a complex discussion. Bill leads from the wisdom he has obtained throughout a lifetime of legal and business knowledge, service to his community and personal experience.”
The cleanup agreement is for Kerber Creek, at the north end of the San Luis Valley, where Trout Unlimited and the EPA have struck a deal that will shield the conservation group from potential liability as it works to clean up mine tilings along a 17-mile stretch of the creek.
The agreement could serve as a model for similar projects in Summit County, especially in the Snake River Basin, where cleanup efforts have been stymied by strict Clean Water Act provisions that shift liability for any pollution releases after a cleanup to the entity that does the work. The local Blue River Watershed Group, for example, is planning several projects similar to the work being done in the San Luis Valley.
Since 2008, Trout Unlimited and its partners have spent more than $1.3 million on restoration efforts along Kerber Creek. Working with the Bureau of Land Management, Colorado’s Nonpoint Source Program, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and local landowners, the goal is to treat 60 acres of mine tailings using lime, limestone and compost, and to restore the stream for fish and wildlife habitat. “Thousands of miles of headwater streams in the West are either threatened or dead as a result of historic mining pollution, and without Clean Water Act liability protection, Good Samaritans’ hands are tied,” said Russell. “If they try to treat the draining water to remove metals and improve water quality, they become liable for that water for ever. That’s a risk no entity has yet been willing to take.”
From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):
Reclamation experts with the federal agency’s regional office say a Superfund designation could be the best way to get the money needed for a comprehensive cleanup, but some local officials aren’t sure they want the environmental stigma of a Superfund site in their backyard — or a massive industrial water treatment facility and a major service road in the Peru Creek backcountry, which has been the focus of long-term open space preservation efforts…
But focusing resources through the Superfund program could be the best, and maybe the only option to do some sort of meaningful remediation in the tainted basin, especially as some of the latest studies show continued degradation of water quality. “In certain months, the peak concentrations for metals have been increasing … They’re creeping up and we don’t know why,” said U.S. Geological Survey researcher Andrew Todd. “Right now, it’s just looking at dots on a plot,” he said…
Most of the metals pollution in the Snake comes from Peru Creek, both from abandoned mines in the basin, as well as from natural sources, as water trickles over highly mineralized rocks. Concentrations are so high that Peru Creek is biologically barren, with no fish or aquatic insects in the tainted water. Even several miles downstream at Keystone, the concentrations of metals exceed state and federal limits set to protect aquatic life. The pollution in Peru Creek is so intense that there’s probably little chance of establishing a self-sustaining fishery directly in that tributary. Even with a cleanup at the Pennsylvania Mine, many other sources of pollution, including natural ones, remain. “I think even with a cleanup, you’d have a biologically dead situation up there,” said Steve Swanson, head of the Blue River Watershed Group…
But at least some of the experts are convinced that they could design and build a functional treatment system that would reduce metals loading downstream, with the ultimate goal of establishing some sort of self-sustaining fishery in the reach from Keystone downstream to Dillon Reservoir.
The resort relies on water from the Roberts Tunnel, owned by Denver Water, to blanket its slopes in white every year through early-season snowmaking. Keystone is allowed to pump as much as 1,500 acre feet from the tunnel between Sept. 1 and March 31 each winter. Denver Water needs to make repairs on the Roberts Tunnel, which draws about 54,000 acre feet per year from Dillon Reservoir to supply municipal water to the Denver Metro Area. The tunnel is 50 years old and requires valve replacements at its east end — a project that must be performed while the tunnel is drained, thus rendering water unavailable for Keystone during construction. The repairs were originally scheduled to begin on Nov. 1 and last throughout the winter until April 4, 2011. “That would impact an entire season of Keystone’s snowmaking, which is essential to guarantee good snow by the holidays,” Summit County manager Gary Martinez said…
So Keystone and Summit County have negotiated a deal through which the resort will pay Denver Water $120,000 to postpone work on the Roberts Tunnel until Dec. 16. The delay will allow Keystone to draw water through Dec. 15. Denver Water is still planning to finish construction by April 4, 2011, in time to capture spring runoff and fill reservoirs with water for summer use. The Keystone funds will cover the added costs of completing the project on a tighter timeline. In the event that construction isn’t done by the April deadline, and Denver Water loses the opportunity to store spring runoff, both Summit County and Keystone will make up for the deficits with water from Clinton Reservoir and Dillon Reservoir for up to three years. “This is an example of the county putting our water portfolio to good use. It would be really tough for our revenue budget to have Keystone fall flat because of an inability to make snow,” Martinez said.
Here’s a recap of a recent science project that saw students scattering about 4 different sites in the Snake River watershed, from Bob Berwyn writing for the Summit Daily News. From the article:
Helped by teachers, parents and staffers from the Keystone Science School, about 100 students from Summit Middle School set up research stations last Friday around Keystone at four different sites to measure dissolved oxygen and zinc levels, look for aquatic insects and take other measurements…
To measure the speed of the river’s flow, the students marked off a 50-foot section with red flags, then dropped apples into the water and used a stopwatch to time how long it took — about eight seconds — for the fruit to float downstream. During the next few weeks, the students will analyze the data in the classroom and put together a report of their findings, said science teacher Brian Richardson. Along with a hands-on lesson in scientific research methods, the students found out that there just isn’t much life in the Snake River around Keystone. The students who were looking for bugs came up empty handed. Seeping from the abandoned mine upstream, concentrations of zinc and other metals exceed state and federal limits, in violation of the Clean Water Act…
The Pennsylvania Mine has been fingered as one of the main sources of pollution, but smaller mines in the basin, as well high levels of natural minerals, also contribute to the problem. The long-range goal is improve water quality in the Snake River to a level that could sustain a natural fishery, said Jean Mackenzie, an EPA researcher who has led recent federal cleanup efforts. Years ago, state environmental experts and local volunteers teamed up to try and treat the water with some man-made wetlands and a passive treatment system, but the scale of the problem overwhelmed those efforts…
The current focus is on trying to pinpoint exactly how the polluted water flows through the Pennsylvania Mine and from other polluted drainages in the area. Some of the most polluted water could be diverted away from Peru Creek, experts said. Another option is to move some of the waste rock from the mine away from the water to reduce the amount of pollution reaching the stream.
Check out the photos from the Peru Creek Basin and Snake River from the Summit Daily News. From the article:
Currently, a group of researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is experimenting with traceable dyes to pinpoint the path of the pollution. The work could help establish the best options for cleaning up Peru Creek and the Snake River. Options include diverting clean water flowing into the mine, moving piles of waste rock away from the water and, ultimately, direct treatment of polluted water flowing out of the mine.
State and federal experts will use three types of dye to trace water flowing through the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine, above Keystone near the headwaters of the Snake River…The Sept. 9 study will try to pinpoint underground pollution sources and identify ground water flow pathways that may be sources of water in contact with polluted…The study is expected to last approximately two years or until the dye has been observed in subsequent samplings from the monitoring locations.
Many Colorado water watchers were hoping that the restoration work up in the Peru Creek Basin would be a successful demonstration project for good samaritan efforts at mine cleanup. What has been shown is that restoration projects related to past mining activity are complicated and costly. Current estimates for cleaning up the runoff and drainage in the basin is at $20 million. Here’s a report from Bob Berwyn writing for the Summit Daily News. From the article:
That amount includes construction and annual operations and maintenance for as long as 20 years, but it’s still much higher than expected. When Trout Unlimited entered the picture, there was speculation that a treatment plant could be built for under $1 million. “All the work that’s been done up there paints a much more dire picture of what we need to do,” [Trout Unlimited’s Liz Russell] said. He said the stakeholders working on the cleanup had also hoped that Congress would have passed some Good Samaritan legislation by now. Such a liability limiting law would have eased the cleanup process by enabling a nonprofit to work on remediation without fear of being pinned with responsibility for the cleanup work forever.
One option that’s not on the table anymore is a Superfund designation for the Pennsylvania Mine. EPA officials previously suggested a Superfund listing would loosen up federal funding for a cleanup. But county officials were not keen on the idea of Superfund status for the mine, preferring to explore alternate options instead.
This summer, some of the research at mine is focused on treating other sources of pollution in the area besides the mine itself. State and federal experts are teaming up to find sites for repositories, where some of the mine waste could be stored in a place where running water can’t get to it. That could help reduce metals-loading into Peru Creek.
The Snake River is showing signs of making a comeback. From the sidebar to the article linked above:
Latest survey shows promising signs of recovery
Trout populations in the Snake River appear to be making a comeback after a surge of pollution two years ago all but wiped out most of the fish. Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists recently surveyed a stretch of the river running through Keystone Resort and found evidence that some rainbow trout survived over the winter.