From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):
After 27 years of EPA control, Colorado is preparing to take over the full financial burden — a forever bill for $2 million a year — of a high-mountain cyanide gold mine that became one of the West’s worst environmental disasters.
The re-shaping of ravaged alpine tundra at the Summitville Mine through a $250 million federal Superfund cleanup stands out because scores of other toxic mines in Colorado still are contaminating headwaters of western rivers each day.
But this fix requires constant work. Colorado must pay the $2 million, a bill that the EPA has been handling, starting in 2021 for cleaning a fluctuating flow of up to 2,100 gallons a minute of toxic water that drains down a once-pristine mountainside.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will use the money to run a silver-domed $18 million industrial water treatment plant built at 11,500 feet elevation in a wild and spectacular valley, surrounded by snow-splotched jagged peaks.
The plant houses huge stainless-steel vats of burbling brown sludge. Toxic metals are chemically coaxed and filtered out. Plant operators haul 4.1 million pounds a year of concentrated waste back up South Mountain (elevation 12,550 feet) in trucks for burial. This muck contains more than 690,000 pounds of cadmium, lead, copper, aluminum, iron, manganese and zinc. It is toxic metal that otherwise would flow down and degrade the Wightman Fork of the Alamosa River.
Colorado also must oversee the artificial covering and drainage ditches across 1,100 acres of tundra scarred by open-pit mining. Mountainsides ripped and slashed to remove gold and silver have been re-contoured by contractors using bulldozers, and re-planted with native vegetation — the engineering equivalent of plastic surgery to make the place look as good as possible…
The hand-off of responsibility for Summitville from the EPA to CDPHE in 2021 will mark a turning point in dealing with a severely damaged landscape using the nation’s Superfund system for handling disasters.
This project was set in motion before Congress in 1995 killed automatic funding for Superfund cleanups.
Complete restoration to a pre-existent state is considered impossible and the government aimed at best-possible repairs.
“That was what the EPA and the state worked to do: bring it back to a sustainable protected state. Once there is mining in an area, it has long-term impact,” said Fran Costanzi, an EPA official who managed the Summitville cleanup for four years. “We worked to bring water quality back and also the vegetation into a long-term stable state.”
An EPA spokesman issued a statement placing Summitville “among the more illustrious, or perhaps infamous, examples of the environmental damage a large mining operation can cause when resources for safely managing contamination sources disappear. The EPA’s initial response was an emergency situation in which the site was literally abandoned by the operator — in winter-time conditions — with a cyanide heap leach pad eroding into a headwaters stream.
“After years of work and investment, we’ve essentially reclaimed a watershed in one of the most beautiful parts of the state. Protecting those gains will continue to require our attention.”
The cleanup improved water quality to where fish can live in Terrace Reservoir, about five miles below the mine, and in the Alamosa River.
CDPHE officials now are required to monitor conditions.
The financial burden falls to Colorado because the Superfund process shifts responsibility to states after initial federal remediation. Colorado lawmakers have arranged to pay about $2 million a year by tapping revenue derived from fees paid at municipal and other landfills around the state…
At Summitville, Rio Grande County eventually will own the 1,100-acre site. State and county officials have been setting up placards conveying the history of mining in the area with an emphasis on environmental damage and evolving efforts to repair harm.