Summitville Mine Superfund Site update: #Colorado to take over project for $2 million a year

Summitville Mine superfund site

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.”

Alamosa River. Photo credit: Wenck

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.

Down ‘The River Of Lost Souls’ With Jonathan Thompson — Colorado Public Radio

From Colorado Public Radio (Nathan Heffel). Click through to listen to the interview:

A new book puts the Gold King Mine spill within the long history of mining and pollution in Southwest Colorado.

Jonathan Thompson will be at the Book Bar tonight. I wonder if Denver is a bit of a shock to his system even though he’s a sixth-generation Coloradan?

I am so happy to finally get to finally meet Jonathan. His new book, River of Lost Souls, is an important read. Understanding the industrialization of our state over the years will help us chart a less destructive course.

I loved the passages where Jonathan reminisces about spending time around the Four Corners and in the San Juans. He transports you to those times in your life spent next to the river or exploring what sights the land has to offer. He connects you to the Four Corners in a way that only a son of the San Juans could.

Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

Take Me to the River — Lesley Adams and Kate Hudson

Here’s a profile of Cindy Medina and her work with the Alamosa Riverkeeper via the Waterkeeper Alliance (Lesley Adams and Kate Hudson). Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Inspired by the leadership of Alamosa Riverkeeper Cindy Medina, a community united to bring the Alamosa River back to life.

The San Luis Valley and the headwaters of the Alamosa River rest between the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado rest. Rising more than 14,000 feet above sea level, the “Blood of Christ” mountains are the southern tip of the Rockies and stretch over the New Mexico border to where the Kapota Ute Indians once lived.

Three centuries ago, Spanish settlers came north from what was then Mexico and settled in the San Luis Valley, where they took root amidst the cottonwood and aspen trees along the Alamosa River and became farmers and ranchers with an unflagging commitment to hard work and their Catholic faith. Cindy Medina, a present-day descendant of one of those families, became one of the first women to join the Waterkeeper movement.

Photo credit: Wenck

The middle child of seven girls, Cindy was raised on a farm, helping with chores, playing in alfalfa fields, and splashing around in the irrigation ditch, called an acequia, that brought water to the farm. In her memoir, A Journey into the Heart of the Black Madonna, Cindy wrote lovingly of her family, whose pulsating force sustained her as a girl. Her memories of growing up in the San Luis Valley send aromas through the pages – of fresh tortillas and cinnamon rolls made by her mother, of the home-heating fires fueled by wood gathered in the mountains with her grandfather, of the potent herbal remedies wild-crafted by her grandmother. Her connections to family and the natural world around her were woven together. She wrote: “This lifeblood was no different than the acequia, the ditches lined with dirt that irrigated this arid land with water. . . The acequia was my ocean.”

Cindy Medina photo credit:

Like many others in the rural West, Cindy left as a young adult to pursue a formal education. She earned a master’s degree in counseling from Arizona State University and relocated with her husband to Seattle. There she began a successful practice as a psychotherapist, gave birth to two daughters and, while on a trip to Zurich, Switzerland to attend a psychology seminar, came across an 8th century statue of the Black Madonna at a Benedictine Abbey and experienced a spiritual transformation that led her to environmental activism. The Black Madonna is considered by some to be the Queen of Nature,” Cindy explains, “and the archetypal energy that fuels change.” She is the mother who fertilizes all life and urgently demands a return to balance and wholeness, honoring the earth. In her memoir, Cindy describes her encounter with the Black Madonna as a spiritual awakening to the interconnectedness of all living things. In 1988, propelled by that journey of self-discovery, Cindy moved back home to southern Colorado, where she found that a pollution crisis threatened the heart of her community, the Alamosa River.

Summitville Mine superfund site

Gold, Greed and Cyanide

The mountains in southern Colorado are rich in minerals, gold and silver, which attracted extensive mining in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. And, in turn, like all boom-and-bust extraction, the mines left a toxic legacy. Acid mine drainage polluted and continues to pollute many Colorado waterways downstream. Mining in high-elevation areas like the San Juan Mountains petered out in the 1920s, and remained dormant for more than half a century, until a new, far more destructive method was developed to allow precious metals to be recovered from otherwise uneconomic ore.

In 1984, Canadian-based Galactic Resources and its subsidiary, Summitville Consolidated Mining Company (named for the local ghost town) acquired 1,230 acres of the San Juan Mountains that loomed above the San Luis Valley, and convinced the state of Colorado to grant them a mining permit for a new “state of the art” mining technique known as “heap leaching” – large-scale open-pit mining that involved slicing off half the side of a mountain and putting the mined ore in a lined open pit (“heap-leach pad”) with sodium cyanide to leach out the copper, gold and silver. This “state of the art” technique was efficient for the mining company, but disastrous for those who lived downstream. The liner of this pit almost immediately sprung leaks, contaminating nearby creeks with heavy metals and acid, and creating a 17-mile dead zone and a massive fish kill in the 51-mile-long Alamosa River.

Colorado Water 2012: It’s the twentieth anniversary of the Summitville Mine disaster


Here’s the latest installment of the Valley Courier’s Colorado Water 2012 series written by Cindy Medina with Alamosa Riverkeeper. Click through and read the whole thing, here’s an excerpt:

In 1992, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emergency response unit found a mountain decimated with a massive open scar, pools of murky green water, and snake-like black pipes lying throughout the site. In contrast, the untouched snow-capped San Juan Mountains surrounded the catastrophe. Later, downstream fishermen and farmers reported fish, victims of the cyanide spill at the mine site, floating in the Alamosa River and in their private reservoirs. How would the governmental agencies and the local residents respond to such an environmental catastrophe with a remediation cost that eventually would exceed $220 million?

The degree of environmental irresponsibility displayed by a Canadian mining company was counterbalanced by the degree of commitment and dedication by local residents, federal and state agencies to this environmental tragedy. In 2002, a settlement was reached with Robert Friedland for $28.5 million, with $5 million exclusively designated for the use “to restore, replace, or acquire the equivalent of” the injured natural resources. This natural resource damage settlement looks small compared to Friedland’s current status of a billionaire who works out of Vancouver, Singapore, and Magnolia as reported by author Walter Isaacson.

But the settlement proved significant to agencies and organizations for its leverage potency for additional monies for projects designed to restore the watershed.

More Summitville Superfund site coverage here and here.

Summitville superfund site: New water treatment plant dedication last Friday


From The South Fork Tines:

“I want to thank the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for providing funding to complete the new water treatment plant at Summitville,” said Chris Urbina, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “This project provided more than a 100 construction jobs in this area, and significantly improved water quality, restoring fish and aquatic life to the Alamosa River and Terrace Reservoir,” he said…

In May 2009, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment was awarded more than $16 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and construction of the 1600-gallon-per minute water treatment plant began on Sept. 14, 2009. The plant will remove contaminants from acidic metals-contaminated mine drainage before the water leaves the site and enters the headwaters of the Alamosa River, which flows into the Rio Grande. Funds from the act are paying 90 percent of this remedial action; the department is paying the remaining 10 percent.

Gold and silver mining began at Summitville around 1870. Large-scale, open-pit mining began at the site in 1984. The mine operator, Summitville Consolidated Mining Corp., Inc., used cyanide heap leaching to extract precious metals from the ore. In this process, ore excavated from the mountain was crushed and placed onto the clay- and synthetic-lined heap leach pad. A sodium cyanide solution was then applied to leach out gold and silver.

Almost immediately after the heap leach pad was constructed in 1986, a leak was detected. In December 1992, the company abandoned the site and announced it was filing for bankruptcy. EPA immediately assumed responsibility of the site as an emergency response, avoiding a significant environmental disaster. On May 31, 1994, Summitville was placed on EPA’s National Priorities List of Superfund sites.

Since 1992, EPA and the department have conducted several interim projects designed to slow the amount of acid mine drainage coming from the site. These interim projects included: 1) detoxifying, capping and revegetating the heap leach pad; 2) removing waste rock piles and filling the mine pits; 3) plugging the adits or underground mine entrances; and 4) expanding the water runoff holding ponds and operating a water treatment plant on site. The new water plant, dedicated today, replaces one built several years ago.

More Summitville Mine superfund site coverage here and here.

Summitville Mine superfund site: Open house Wednesday for opening of new water treatment facility


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

State environmental officials will host an open house Wednesday for the opening of a new water treatment facility at the Summitville Mine Superfund site

The open house will run from noon to 4 p.m. and include a grand-opening ceremony from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Site tours will be offered at noon and 2:30 p.m.

More Summitville coverage here and here.

Summitville superfund site update

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

The water treatment plant, funded by $17 million in federal stimulus spending, has been eyed by federal and state environmental officials as a key component in limiting contamination from the site. It joins a new micro-hydro power plant and a dam spillway as projects crews worked on this summer. “There’s quite a lot going on this year,” said Austin Buckingham, project manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment…

Austin Buckingham said the new plant, which will draw water from the impoundment dam at the bottom of the site, will use lime to raise the pH balance of the contaminated water. The rise in pH forces the metals to precipitate. Those metals include copper, cadmium, manganese, zinc, lead, nickel, aluminum, and iron. With a capacity of 1,600 gallons per minute and the ability to run at night, thanks to automation, the plant is expected to have an easier time dealing with spring runoff from the site, which sits near tree line 18 miles southwest of Del Norte…

Other projects moving forward this year include the installation of a 56 kilowatt hydro power plant, which is expected to cut an estimated $15,000 per year off the site’s power bill. Turbines for the plant are expected to arrive in two weeks, she said. The turbines will be powered by water coming from the treatment plant on its way to Wrightman Fork, a tributary of the Alamosa River.

More Summitville Mine coverage here and here.

Summitville superfund site scores stimulus dough

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From the Conejos County Citizen:

United States Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, and Congressman John Salazar have announced that the Summitville Mine Superfund site in Del Norte will receive between $10 and $25 million in funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to accelerate hazardous waste clean-up already underway at the site. The funding will complete work begun in 2007, when the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment started designing a new 1,600 gallons-per-minute water treatment plant, with construction slated to begin in 2010. The plant will remove contaminants from acidic metals-contaminated mine drainage before the water leaves the site and enters the headwaters of the Alamosa River, which flows into the Rio Grande. When the plant is operational, all cleanup work at the Summitville Mine site will be complete.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here and here.

Stimulus dough for Summitville

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Stimulus dough is poised to rain down on the Summitville Mine superfund site, according to a report from Mark Jaffe writing for the Denver Post. From the article:

The Summitville Mine Superfund site will receive up to $25 million in federal stimulus funds to replace an aging plant used to treat polluted mine water…

…there were five small water-treatment plants on the site. A couple were closed and the rest consolidated into a single, upgraded operation, Wangerud said. That plant, however, had a rated capacity of 1,000 gallons per minute. “It just didn’t have the capacity to treat all the water,” Wangerud said. The new plant will handle 1,600 gallons a minute, removing acid and metal contamination from the mine drainage water, according to the EPA. The treated water is discharged into Wightman Fork, a tributary of the Alamosa River, which flows into the Rio Grande. When the plant is operational, cleanup work at the mine site will be complete.

More coverage from the Valley Courier (Eric Mullins) including a timeline for the Summitville Mine superfund site.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here.