EPA officials announced last week that the agency has entered an agreement with a property owner who owns the Kittimac Tailings, a historic mine waste pile about six miles northeast of Silverton along County Road 2.
The EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water treatment plant north of Silverton in October, three months after the agency triggered the Gold King Mine blowout, which sent a torrent of mine waste down the Animas and San Juan rivers.
Since, the water-treatment plant has been treating and removing potentially toxic metals out of water that continues to discharge from the Gold King Mine. In April, the EPA said the mine was still leaking 450 gallons a minute.
The water treatment plant adds lime to the mine wastewater to raise the pH of the water so that dissolved metals become solid and can settle in settling ponds – a highly effective process.
The process, however, generates a lot of sludge. EPA has said an estimated 4,600 cubic yards of sludge is generated a year.
The agency had been storing this sludge waste product – which is considered non-hazardous – at the site of the water treatment plant in an area known as Gladstone, about six miles north of Silverton along County Road 110.
The EPA announced this spring, however, room was running out at Gladstone for the sludge…
Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner and former miner, said Wednesday local residents are pleased to learn the EPA found a better solution to the sludge waste issue.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “But it’s almost like this big experiment.”
The EPA has said it will mix the Gold King Mine sludge with mine tailings located at Kittimac.
The EPA believes this will reduce high water content of the sludge, and will allow more efficient management, while at the same time immobilize heavy metals found in the tailings pile…
The EPA said it is conducting a bench-scale testing of the sludge and tailings mixture to ensure the maximum reduction of metals leaching from the tailings. The agency plans to conduct a pilot test of this transfer process for one week in mid-June.
The Kittimac tailings pile for years has been used illegally by dirt bikers and ATVers who have disregarded “no trespassing” signs to ride on the mine waste that looks like a pile of sand. Now that the EPA is using the site, access will be more guarded, Tookey said…
While the short-term problem of where to put the sludge is temporarily solved, Fetchenheir said there remains the larger, more complicated matter at hand: what to do for long-term treatment of the mines draining into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River considered the worst polluter in the headwaters.
While lime treatment plants are effective, they are also expensive to operate ($1 million a year) and have to be run in perpetuity. The EPA has yet to release its plan for long-term treatment options.
“It’s hugely open-ended,” Fetchenheir said. “The true hope is some new technology arrives that removes metals without generating a huge amount of sludge. But I haven’t seen anything like it.”
For now, the EPA said it will transfer the sludge via truck using the County Road 110 bypass. The agency said it hopes to reduce negative impacts, such as noise and dust suppression.
After the pilot test in June, the EPA will resume transferring the sludge to the Kittimac tailings after the tourist season, around early fall, for a duration of about five weeks.