Today (Wednesday, Jan. 17), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified the Eagle Mine Superfund site in Eagle County, Colo. as among 31 current and former National Superfund Priorities List (NPL) sites with the greatest expected redevelopment and commercial potential.
“EPA is more than a collaborative partner to remediate the nation’s most contaminated sites, we’re also working to successfully integrate Superfund sites back into communities across the country,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “Today’s redevelopment list incorporates Superfund sites ready to become catalysts for economic growth and revitalization.”
EPA’s redevelopment focus list includes a portion of the Eagle Mine Superfund site that has been identified for potential residential development. EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are currently working with a development company, Battle North, LLC, to complete environmental investigation and cleanup actions necessary to allow for future residential use. In 2017, EPA selected a remedy for this area to achieve the additional cleanup of surface soils to levels that would allow for future residential development. These actions will include the excavation, containment and disposal of soils at a solid waste facility, the installation of a soil exposure barrier, and the implementation of institutional controls.
The 235-acre Eagle Mine Superfund site is located one mile from the town of Minturn and 75 miles west of Denver and is bordered by the White River National Forest. The Eagle River runs through the site. Gold, silver, copper and zinc mining and production took place on the site at various times between the 1880s and 1984 leaving high levels of metals in soils, surface water and groundwater. EPA placed the site on the NPL in 1986. To date, cleanup has included the removal of contaminated soils and sediments, containment of mine seepage and runoff, monitoring of surface water, groundwater, pool water and stream water, and land use controls. These actions have achieved significant water quality improvements in the Eagle River, an important recreational asset and a now-thriving trout fishery.
“The Eagle Mine site offers a great example of how EPA is working with local interests to secure the productive reuse of Superfund sites,” said EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento. “Over the past decades, cleanup actions taken at the Eagle Mine site have addressed soil, groundwater, and mine waste contamination and significantly improved water quality in the Eagle River. Our recent efforts with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Battle North build upon that progress with new remedies for soil contamination that will make portions of the Eagle Mine site ready for residential use.”
Superfund redevelopment has helped countless communities reclaim and reuse thousands of acres of formerly contaminated land. Superfund sites on the list have significant redevelopment potential based on previous outside interest, access to transportation corridors, land values, and other critical development drivers.
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Richard Mylott):
Actions build upon prior cleanup efforts
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) have released two final Records of Decision for environmental remediation at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site in Eagle County, Colorado, following the consideration of input received through a public comment process. Both documents, specifying measures to protect water quality and facilitate site reuse, focus on further reducing exposure to heavy metal contamination created by nearly one-hundred years of mining activity at the site.
“These actions reflect both EPA’s and CDPHE’s commitment to efficiently evaluate conditions and protect human health and the environment at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site,” said EPA Assistant Regional Administrator Betsy Smidinger. “Together, we are strengthening the water quality improvements we have achieved in the Eagle River and providing opportunities to bring lands back into safe, productive reuse. EPA remains committed to improving environmental conditions and human health for Americans that live and work near Superfund sites.”
The amended Record of Decision finalized for Operable Unit 1 (OU1) at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site adopts site-specific arsenic remedial goals and modifies surface water cleanup levels for cadmium, copper and zinc to meet more recent standards established for the site by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission in 2008. Water quality monitoring in the Eagle River indicates that these standards for cadmium, copper and zinc are not attained in March and April of most years. The OU1 Record of Decision requires institutional controls to protect existing remedial features and expands the current groundwater collection system in Belden and at the mouth of Rock Creek to further reduce metals loading to the Eagle River.
EPA and CDPHE have also finalized a separate Record of Decision for Operable Unit 3 (OU3) focused on soil remediation necessary to protect human health should future residential development occur. EPA created OU3 after a developer purchased a large portion of the Eagle Mine Superfund Site in 2004 with plans to develop the property into a private, residential community. The Record of Decision for OU3 includes a combination of the following elements for areas proposed for development: excavating soil; placing a soil exposure barrier; grading the site; placing institutional controls and conducting monitoring; and/or demolishing structures.
The Eagle Mine Superfund Site is located in Eagle County, Colorado. The site is defined as the area impacted by past mining activity along and including the Eagle River between the towns of Red Cliff and Minturn. Mining activities at the Eagle Mine began in 1879 and continued until 1984. EPA listed the site on the National Priorities List (NPL), commonly known as the list of Superfund Sites, in 1986 because of the mine metals discharge, uncontrolled mine waste piles and the close proximity of the population to the mine and associated features. To better manage the site, EPA divided it into operable units.
EPA and CDPHE issued a final Record of Decision for the Eagle Mine Superfund Site in 1993. Over the years, all required environmental cleanup work has occurred at the site under a number of state and federal directives. EPA declared all cleanup construction activities complete at the site in 2001. Remediation conducted to-date has resulted in significant improvement in water quality and reduction in risk to human health and the environment. Continued operation of the existing remedy, including drawdown from the mine pool and treatment at the water treatment plant, is required to maintain this condition. Contaminant concentrations in surface water and groundwater have decreased significantly, and the aquatic ecosystem continues to show signs of recovery.
For more information about the Eagle Mine Superfund Site, please contact: Ms. Wendy Naugle, On-Site Coordinator, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 4300 Cherry Creek Drive South, Denver, CO 80246, Wendy.email@example.com, or Ms. Jamie Miller, Project Manager, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1595 Wynkoop Street, Denver, CO 80202, firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
New Developments on the Horizon for the Eagle Mine
Long-time residents of the Eagle Valley remember a time nearly 30 years ago when the Eagle River ran orange. Linda Jones, who worked at Battle Mountain High School, would pass by the river and its orange-stained rocks on her way to work, football games, and ski practices. Joe Macy and his colleagues at Vail Resorts (then Vail Associates) dealt with blowing orange snow on Beaver Creek’s ski slopes in the winter of 1989-90, as their snowmaking process pulls water straight from the Eagle. Those who weren’t around in the eighties might not realize that the scene at the Eagle River was not unlike the 2015 Gold King Mine spill on the Animas River. The leaching of hazardous heavy metals into the lifeblood of the Eagle Valley eventually caused the mining area to be declared a Superfund Site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1986.
Gold and silver mining activity in the 235-acre area dates back to the 1870s, until lead and zinc mining took over in 1905. Ownership of the operation changed hands multiple times, until 1984, when the mine operator, Glenn Miller, went into bankruptcy and failed to pay the electricity bills. Without electricity, the water pumps in the mine stopped running and the mine workings began to flood. For the next five years, the water level in the mine continued to creep higher, until finally spilling over and flooding the river with lead, cadmium, copper, arsenic and zinc. Water quality began suffering long before the spill, however, as up until the Clean Water Act of 1972 was enacted, discharging contaminated water into the river was a perfectly legal and common practice.
The State of Colorado and the EPA both filed separate lawsuits against the former and current mine operators resulting in the cleanup being governed by two settlement agreements. Today, the site is owned by Battle Mountain, but the successor of Gulf + Western—CBS Corporation—is still paying for the cleanup and will continue to in perpetuity.
Over the past three decades, multiple agencies and partners have worked together to remediate, monitor, and improve the cleanup and the Eagle River. In many ways, the Superfund Site is an example of a very successful remediation in Colorado. Ore was originally processed through roasting and magnetic separation, resulting in metals-laden roaster waste. The tailings from the milling process also contained high concentrations of metals and were slurried through a pipeline away from the mine area. The deposited waste led to acid mine drainage. To date, all of the roaster waste and tailings that threatened human health and water quality have been consolidated from the old tailings pile, capped with a protective cover and revegetated to prevent any further groundwater contamination. Contaminated groundwater is currently treated at a water treatment facility before entering the river. Institutional controls and monitoring were established around the waste rock piles to determine acid generation potential and the water quality impact from runoff. The EPA also created secondary cribbing walls beneath Belden as a safeguard from waste rock crumbling into the Eagle.
Though extensive remediation has occurred on site, the primary remaining concern is water quality and the ecological risks to fish and the tiny aquatic insects they feed on. The Eagle River is currently being managed as a brown trout fishery under Colorado Parks and Wildlife. In 2008, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission set new standards for cadmium, copper, zinc, and arsenic levels. The change in standards required a new “feasibility study,” a Superfund process for the development and evaluation of new plans for cleanup. Today, the need for further cleanup is clear as the metal levels tend to exceed limits in March and April, as the snow is melting at the Eagle Mine site but the river hasn’t hit peak flow yet.
It’s important to note while arsenic levels peak in the spring, they are still well below limits for safe consumption of fish. The highest arsenic level is about .31 micrograms per liter (ug/L), while the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sets the standard for safe fish consumption at 7.6 ug/L, and under the Safe Drinking Water Act the limit is 10 ug/L. At a recent panel discussion of the Eagle Mine, both project managers from the EPA and CDPHE said they would let their kids and pets play in the river, and eat a fish from it as well.
The EPA broke the site into three manageable operable units (OUs): OU1 deals with site-wide water quality; OU2 is concerned with human health, primarily in the town of Gilman; and OU3 encompasses the North Property Redevelopment, or the Battle Mountain Project. The EPA and CDPHE have recently released Proposed Plans for Operable Units 1 and 3, which can be found online here and here or at the Minturn Town Hall. These new plans outline different alternatives for future remediation of the Superfund Site, to both bring metal concentrations into compliance in the spring as well as address land use changes in the future. Public comments on the plans will be accepted until September 10th of this year and can be submitted by email or mail—the addresses for each can be found within the plans. As these Plans are the first step in determining the next actions in the ongoing cleanup of the Superfund site, the Watershed Council encourages the community to read the plans and provide comments.
Lizzie Schoder is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406 or visit
This panel will explore the history of the Eagle Mine and the collaborative cleanup efforts of the past two decades. The discussion will highlight the business, operational and regulatory perspectives, as well as those of our local community.
This discussion will be moderated by Larissa Read, president of the board of directors for Eagle River Watershed Council and owner of Common Ground Environmental Consulting.
Jamie Miller is a remedial project manager with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science, with a focus on Planning and Administration. She began her career in the environmental field with a private consulting firm and spent six years working with the EPA as a contractor on the Superfund Technical Assessment and Response Team contract, providing technical assistance to the EPA Emergency Response and Removal Program.
Wendy Naugle, P.E. is an engineer and groundwater hydrologist in the Superfund/Brownfields Unit at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and has been working on the Eagle Mine cleanup for the past 18 years. Naugle holds a Bachelor’s degree in Geology from The Colorado College and a Master’s degree in Geological Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.
John Widerman is a member of the Minturn Town Council. He has lived in the Eagle Valley for nine years and in Minturn for six of those years. He is a local environmental steward, a Colorado Mountain College Alum and an employee of Eagle County Schools.
The Eagle River roils with spring runoff in June 2011 near Edwards, Colo. Photo/Allen Best
Eagle River Basin
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Jennifer Chergo):
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) today released two Proposed Plans for environmental remediation at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site. Both Proposed Plans focus on further reducing heavy metal contamination created by nearly one hundred years of mining activity at the site.
“The cleanup proposals represent both EPA and CDPHE’s commitment to protect human health and the environment at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site,” said Acting Regional Administrator Deb Thomas. “These plans also highlight EPA’s commitment to bringing contaminated lands back to health and reuse.”
The Eagle Mine Superfund Site is located in Eagle County, Colorado. The site is defined as the area impacted by past mining activity along and including the Eagle River between the towns of Red Cliff and Minturn. Mining activities at the Eagle Mine began in 1879 and continued until 1984. EPA listed the site on the National Priorities List (NPL), commonly known as the list of Superfund Sites, in 1986 because of the mine metals discharge, uncontrolled mine waste piles and the close proximity of the population to the mine and associated features. To better manage the site, EPA divided it into operable units (OUs). OU1 focuses on protecting surface water by reducing metals loading from the site to the Eagle River. OU2 focuses on potential human health risks from contaminated soils in the abandoned company town of Gilman. OU3 focuses on soil remediation necessary to protect human health due to planned future development by the current landowner.
EPA issued a final Record of Decision (ROD) for OU1 in 1993 and a final ROD for OU2 in 1998. Over the years, all required environmental cleanup work has occurred at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site under a number of state and federal directives. Response actions at the site addressed the major sources of metals contamination to the Eagle River, including the old and new tailings pile, rex flats and various roaster waste piles near Belden. In 2001, EPA declared all cleanup construction activities complete at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site, except for ongoing operation and maintenance of remedial features like the water treatment plant. Remediation conducted to-date resulted in significant improvement in water quality and reduction in risk to human health and the environment. Continued operation of the existing remedy, including drawdown from the mine pool and treatment at the water treatment plant, is required to maintain this condition. Contaminant concentrations in surface water and groundwater have decreased, and the aquatic ecosystem continues to show signs of recovery.
In 2009, water quality standards established by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission specifically for the Eagle Mine site became effective. Water quality monitoring in the Eagle River revealed that the water quality standards for cadmium, copper and zinc are not attained in March and April of most years. In response, the Proposed Plan released today for OU1 describes a number of alternatives designed to further reduce metals loading to the Eagle River. The preferred OU1 alternative includes the collection and treatment of groundwater from Belden and at the mouth of Rock Creek.
The Proposed Plan for OU3 presents cleanup alternatives focusing on soil remediation necessary to protect human health should future development occur. EPA created OU3, after a developer purchased a large portion of the Eagle Mine Superfund Site in 2004 with plans to develop the property into a private, residential community. The preferred alternative includes a combination of the following elements for areas at OU3 proposed for development: placing a soil exposure barrier; grading the site; placing institutional controls and conducting monitoring; and/or demolishing structures.
FromColoradoPolitics.com (Peter Marcus) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
The man who led transition efforts for President Trump at the EPA said the administration’s proposed budget signals a commitment to abolish the agency.
But Myron Ebell, a Colorado College graduate and an outspoken climate change skeptic who leads energy and environment policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said it is not an overnight effort.
The administration’s preliminary 2018 budget proposal released Thursday charts a course that could lead to the end of the federal environmental agency, Ebell said, speaking to a conservative group at the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver on Thursday.
Ebell had proposed Trump make a 10 percent cut to the EPA in his first budget request. The proposal unveiled Thursday would cut the agency by significantly more, up to 31 percent. It represents about a $2.6 billion cut to the agency’s relatively small, when compared to other federal agencies, $8.2 billion budget.
The cuts would result in about 3,200 employees being laid off in the initial wave, which could include many regional staff. Denver is home to Region 8 headquarters, a multi-state jurisdiction that covers much of the Intermountain West, which employs about 500 people.
“I think there’s a serious commitment here to draining the swamp,” Ebell, calling upon a popular Trump campaign mantra, said to applause.
The preliminary budget request would eliminate as much as a fifth of the agency’s workforce, which stands at around 15,000. More than 50 programs would be eliminated, including energy grants that help to fight air pollution. Scientific research would also face massive cuts.
Environmental interests had feared Trump’s budget proposal would start to chip away at the EPA, ultimately leading to closure. News of the preliminary budget sent many into a tailspin, as it potentially signals a much faster outcome.
Trump also proposed a 12 percent cut to the Interior Department and a 5.6 percent cut to the Department of Energy.
“The president’s budget is a moral document, and President Trump has shown us exactly where he stands. These unprecedented cuts will hamper the ability of our park rangers, scientists, those who enforce the law against polluters, and other Coloradans from doing their important work,” said Jessica Goad, spokeswoman for Conservation Colorado.
“This is not just cutting the fat, this is a complete butchering of programs and jobs that are critical to Colorado.”
The move leaves specific uncertainty in Colorado, where the EPA has promised to cleanup toxic leaking mines that are spilling into the Animas River in Durango. The Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 was triggered by an EPA engineering error, causing about 3 million gallons of mustard yellow sludge to pour into the river.
In the aftermath of the spill, the EPA declared the area a Superfund site, which allows it to spend significant resources to implement a long-term water quality cleanup effort. Some worry those efforts would be diminished by reductions at the EPA.
But Ebell said a pushback to the EPA’s “regulatory rampage” does not mean that environmental controls would go away. He said regulations would still be enforced – especially on the state level – including around Superfund sites and clean drinking water.
“The question is, why do we need 15,000 people working for the EPA?” asked Ebell. “I understand why we need some … Maybe abolishing the agency is something that President Trump … would want to have a discussion about … I personally think it’s a good idea.”
Busting up the EPA is not a good idea, Myron.
California Gulch back in the day
Summitville Mine superfund site
Rocky Mountain Arsenal back in the day
Rocky Flats circa 2007
The “Bonita Peak Mining District” superfund site. Map via the Environmental Protection Agency
Progress made during 2015 set to help improve watershed
The Eagle River, its tributaries and streams and the 55 miles of the Colorado River that runs through Eagle County are directly related to our economic wealth. A healthy watershed means a strong tourism economy, the main driver in our area. And it’s not only about the money. The water attracts wildlife — moose, bear, eagles and foxes frequent our waterways. It’s drinking water for our entire
community. It is important that the visitors and residents of Eagle County understand this, and also understand the threats to and condition of our watershed, especially as the population grows. The more each of us knows about the issues affecting our watershed, the more able we are as a community to take steps as needed. At the policy making level, awareness will help our representatives make educated and responsible decisions.
This year was a busy year for Eagle River Watershed Council. One exciting accomplishment was launching new projects on the 55 miles of the Colorado River in Eagle County, each recommended in the 2014 Colorado River Inventory and Assessment. Among these are restoration projects that foster new alliances with the ranching community. Through collaborative efforts with private landowners, federal agencies and other nonprofit organizations, we have improved the health of this stretch of the Colorado River and provided an example of
progressive environmental attitudes toward the watershed.
GORE CREEK IMPROVEMENTS
Deserving recognition at year end is the town of Vail for its efforts along Gore Creek. The town of Vail is committed to improving the health of its gold medal stream. In 2015, Vail completed the Gore Creek Water Quality Improvement Plan and has moved forward with the implementation phase of the program. Key components of the plan are to revise land-use regulations, repair damaged sections of the riparian zone and work with Colorado Department of Transportation to improve stormwater runoff systems near Interstate 70. Vail has identified 42 restoration projects and 61 stormwater runoff enhancements. Eagle River Watershed Council is excited to be working with the town of Vail to implement revegetation projects that will serve as examples of beautiful, river-friendly landscaping. The Watershed Council will continue to lead the Urban Runoff Group to create similar action plans for downstream communities.
MAKING DIRTY WATER CLEAN AGAIN
While the images from the Gold King Mine Spill shocked us, the reality is that amount of acid mine runoff is spilled into Colorado’s mountain streams every two days from thousands of abandoned mining sites. We’ve seen what the Eagle Mine is capable of doing to our river when left unchecked. In fact, this is where the Watershed Council has its roots. Every minute, 250 gallons of acid mine runoff flow into a water treatment plant in Minturn created solely for the treatment of Eagle Mine water. The plant removes an astounding 251 pounds of metals each day. The Watershed Council’s diligent efforts have held the responsible party accountable and have helped to develop a strategy to prevent a major event like the one in Silverton.
The Basin of Last Resort has been a problem for years. This is the pond on Vail Pass which catches traction sand from I-70 and prevents it from migrating into Black Gore Creek, a tributary to the Gore. The basin has reached a critical level more than once, and the permitting process to remove the sand has been cumbersome in the most bureaucratic sense. The Watershed Council is helping CDOT to design and implement a plan that allows more efficient access to the basin so that it can be cleaned more regularly. This approach will likely not be implemented until 2017, but the end result will be a long-term solution.
The Watershed Council is fortunate to have an incredibly-competent staff, expert consultants and a compassionate board of directors to guide it. But it is the support of the Eagle County community that allows us to succeed; the individuals and businesses who donate, the municipalities, the volunteers. We have a dedicated and reliable group of people who regularly attend our events. We thank you for your continued participation and want to let you know that there is always room for more. Please join us as a volunteer or at our Watershed Wednesday educational series, where we discuss and dissect relevant water topics. Also, if you share our values, then please donate or contact us about aligning your business with the Watershed Council’s Business Partner Program.
It was a long, difficult road as the community of Leadville went through a more-than-20-year process through the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup Superfund program. But local government officials here on Thursday told a large constituency of Southwest Coloradoans that, ultimately, it was worth it.
Various agencies from the Animas River watershed are on a three-day tour of several Superfund sites in Colorado, hoping to gain knowledge on the process as stakeholders look to make a decision about long-term water treatment in the Animas basin.
The situation in Leadville, in many ways, has a striking similarity with the leaking mine network north of Silverton – with its long mining history, relative isolation and fragile economy…
But after more than a century of unregulated mining in Leadville, a two-hour drive west of Denver, an adit suffered a blowout, causing a die-off along the Arkansas River down to Pueblo. In 1983, Leadville was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list, just a few years after the program was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the town was officially taken off the National Priorities List. After the many battles between local, state and federal agencies, local officials there said it left a bittersweet feeling throughout the community.
“In the beginning, it definitely had an impact on our economic development,” said Howard Tritz, an assessor at the time. “It was a real obstacle. But the stigma of being a Superfund site has pretty much blown away; people are starting to come back here. It was bittersweet.”[…]
Melissa Sheets, a reclamation project manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said this week’s tour, which includes a number of stakeholders, is a sign the agencies have learned from past mistakes in dealing with local communities.
“I think we’re learning as Superfund grows up,” Sheets said. “Unfortunately for this community (Leadville), they got the Superfund designation when this program was brand new, so I think they got a lot of the bumps in the road. This outreach we’re doing is absolutely unprecedented. We’re trying to make sure everyone has an opportunity for input.”
After visiting Leadville, the group went to Minturn’s Eagle Mine Superfund site, where residents said there really was no other option beside Superfund.
“There’s always some tension and disagreement as to what cleanup measures are going to be most effective,” said Bob Weaver of Leonard Rich Engineering. “But it’s really important to realize everybody wants to achieve the same goal. You’re not always going to agree, but it’s a lot better than doing nothing.
Representatives from the Animas River were sure to point out the many differences between Leadville and Minturn, ranging from potentially responsible parties to differences in geology. But San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman said overall it’s been a productive trip.
“I’ve learned a hell of a lot,” he said. “Anything we’re going to get is from working together. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said seeing the actual physical implementation of Superfund helped push the decision-making process…
Leadville Mayor Jaime Stuever offered one last bit of advice for the group before a tour of the California Gulch Superfund site.
“We live in an environment in today’s world were we have problems,” he said. “If you look at how many years mining took place here, you realize it takes a long time to clean up a mess that’s been here many, many years. How could we have done it ourselves? We couldn’t have done it ourselves.”
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.
Mustard-colored water in the Animas River of southwestern Colorado illustrates more than anything else the long gestation time of many environmental disasters.
The surge was unleashed last week by a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency who unwittingly breached a dike, allowing contaminated water backed up in the Gold King Mine to flood into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas. The images from the river downstream in Durango were appalling.
The makings for the disaster, however, began almost 130 years ago. Located seven miles north of Silverton at an elevation of 11,400 feet, the Gold King was among several big mines and mills clustered around a company town called Gladstone. The Gold King had a brief but productive life. The mine was staked in 1886 and the vein that made it a bonanza was identified in 1896. Until mine portals were shuttered in 1922, it produced $8 million in ore. That was more than a tenth of all production in San Juan County, according to “The Rainbow Route,” a railroad and mining history.
If a bonanza to owners, the mine was deadly to workers. Six people died of carbon dioxide drawn into the mine by a fire at the nearby boarding house. Another five people died in an avalanche, reports Scott Fetchenhier, an amateur historian and San Juan County commissioner.
Mining can be hazardous to people living downstream, too. In the 1930s, farmers along Clear Creek, northwest of Denver, complained bitterly of their irrigation water being sullied by gold miners upstream at Central City and Blackhawk, to the detriment of their crops.
Even after state and federal laws were enacted, seeking to curb pollution, we’ve continued to cut corners. When mining ended in 1979 after a century at the Eagle Mine, located a few miles from Vail, Colo., a giant mess remained. Pollution made people uncertain whether they should eat fish caught in the Eagle River.
That question was soon answered. The settlement between the mining company and Colorado regulators assumed that sealing the mine would prevent water from flowing into the rivers. The experts were wrong. By early 1990, the Eagle River looked like Kool-Aid. The fish vanished. Belatedly, the EPA was called in and, after $100 million, the pollution has largely been cleaned up. However, heavy metals must continue to be removed from water in the mine before it gets into the river. The last time I checked, in the 1990s, the plant cost $1 million a year to operate. This will continue in perpetuity.
That cost near Vail is being borne privately, by a corporate conglomerate. Not so the $155 million cleanup at Summitville, an open-pit mine in southern Colorado where cyanide was used to extract gold from low-grade ore. After the mess became public, Galactic Resources filed for bankruptcy in 1992.
Mines from around Silverton had been causing trouble long before this spill. The Silverton Standard & Miner had reported that water quality has worsened 2005. Four of five trout species in one area had vanished.
Since 1995, the non-profit Animas River Stakeholders Group has been working to address these legacy problems. It has been thwarted by absence of federal Good Samaritan legislation. Independent groups can’t afford to touch problems like the Gold King because, in case of accident, they “own the damages,” in the words of Ken Neubecker, of American Rivers, a conservation group. He explains that environmental communities worry that Good Samaritan legislation will allow big mining corporations to skip out on their responsibilities, such as occurred at Summitville.
The larger lesson derived from this giant mess in Silverton and Durango is that mining just doesn’t belong in headwaters areas, says Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin program for American Rivers. He cites a copper-mining proposal for the Smith River in Montana. “Eventually, inevitably, the (contaminated) water will make it back to the river, whether it’s by catastrophic accident or a natural event,” he says.
I take a bigger view yet. Don’t blame the miners of 100 years ago. I have friends whose parents and grandparents worked at these mines near Silverton and Vail. They led hard lives.
But today we know better. We also know better than to pollute the atmosphere with reckless abandon, creating a bigger, denser greenhouse around the planet. Yet we keep doing it. People want 100 percent certainty. People complain about the costs. Right now, I’m wondering which would have cost more on the Animas River, prevention or cleanup.
From the Associated Press (Matthew Brown And P. Solomon Banda) via The Denver Post:
The spill of toxic wastewater from an abandoned gold mine high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains caused untold millions in economic disruptions and damages in three states — to rafting companies, Native American farmers unable to irrigate, municipal water systems and possibly water well owners. And largely because the federal government inadvertently triggered the release, it has vowed to pay the bill.
That bill could be years in the making. Attorneys general from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah vowed to ensure citizens and towns are compensated for immediate and long-term damages from the spill. But Colorado’s attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, acknowledged it could be years before the full impact is known.
“We have to be vigilant as attorneys general, as the lawyers for the state, as protectors of the environment, to be sure that the assurances that we received today from the Environmental Protection Agency are the same in two years, in five years, even 10 years when we discover what the damage to the environment actually is,” Coffman said Wednesday after she and her counterparts gathered in Durango.
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency took full responsibility for the spill, which was unleashed Aug. 5 when an EPA-supervised crew accidentally unleashed the torrent of wastewater from the Gold King mine. The plume of heavy metals, including arsenic and lead, flowed into southwest Colorado’s Animas River and into the San Juan River in New Mexico.
McCarthy also said she had ordered agency personnel across the country to cease field investigation work on abandoned mines while the spill was investigated. EPA officials said they were seeking details on what the stop-work order means.
The Gold King spill was proving devastating to the Navajo Nation, which recently negotiated a settlement giving it rights to water from the San Juan River. The tribe plans to build a $20 million water treatment plant in northwestern New Mexico to take in the extra volume of water granted by the settlement and provide a clean drinking source to more of the 16,000 families on the reservation who still haul water to their homes.
Heavy metals already were present in the tribe’s underground aquifers, and “now those same things are dumped in the river,” complained Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. He said meeting EPA standards for clean drinking water could double the plant’s cost and require millions more in operating costs each year…
Current Colorado law requires a mining company to post a bond to cover the eventual cost of cleanup before a permit is issued to start operations, said Tony Waldron, supervisor of mine programs for the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. If the company fails to clean up the site when the mine closes, the state uses the bond to hire a contractor to do the work.
In most cases, the bonds have been sufficient to cover the cost of cleanup when mine operators don’t finish, Waldron said. The state has a fund it can use to make up the difference.
But the Gold King Mine isn’t covered because it was abandoned in 1923, before the law was in effect. In the absence of an owner, the federal government was working with local residents and the state to do limited mitigation work in the area around the Gold King mine — one of a cluster of old and polluted mines perched more than 11,000 feet high — when the spill occurred.
Cleanup costs alone can be staggering — and continuous.
Colorado tightened its bond requirements in the 1990s after the operator of the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado, Summitville Consolidated Mining Co., declared bankruptcy and couldn’t complete a cleanup. Summitville became a federal Superfund site, with the EPA in charge.
The cleanup is ongoing because contaminated water continues to drain from the mine. The total cost to date is more than $100 million, according to the U.S. Geological Service.
Authorities said Wednesday that the waste from the Gold King spill will continue to be dangerous when contaminated sediment gets stirred up from the river bottom.
“There will be a source of these contaminants in the rivers for a long time,” said hydrologist Tom Myers, who runs a Nevada-based consulting business. “Every time there’s a high flow, it will stir it up and it will be moving those contaminants downstream.”
EPA spill liaison Nat Miullo suggested the danger from the spill had diminished with the dissipation of the initial burst of tainted water. Any future spike in contaminant levels caused by stirring up sediments would be “much, much smaller in scale,” he said.
But environmental regulators in downstream New Mexico warned that it was crucial to determine where the contamination settles.
“Those are some of the longer-term issues that affect humans as well as wildlife,” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said.
Seven days after her agency’s massive mine wastewater spill into a major southwest watershed, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said water quality in the Animas River through La Plata County has “returned to pre-event conditions.”
Administrator Gina McCarthy, in a boots-on-the-ground appearance Wednesday in Durango that’s expected to continue Thursday in Farmington, N.M., called the Aug. 5 incident “heartbreaking” and said the EPA “couldn’t be more sorry.”
“Right now, rest assured, we will learn lessons from this, and we will move those lessons forward in the work moving ahead,” she said of the spill of 3 million gallons at the Gold King Mine near Silverton.
In a 15-minute news conference, McCarthy said cleanup operations at similar mines throughout the country have been “put on hold” until the EPA determines how the Gold King accident happened. Speaking outside a command center, McCarthy said the EPA plans to solicit an independent investigation of the calamity.
Some Durango residents are angered that McCarthy is neither planning a trip to the Gold King Mine nor holding a public meeting. EPA officials and McCarthy said the mine — roughly a 55-mile trip, some of it over unpaved road — was too far to visit.
“As you know, it is a significant distance away, but I did visit the river. I took a look at it myself to get a sense of the river,” McCarthy said. “And I think the good news is it seems to be restoring itself, but we have continued work to do and EPA is here.”
Her appearance came after Colorado’s senators and the congressman representing Durango-area residents urged her to visit the impacted areas.
“The most important thing for me, for this trip, was to come to the unified command center,” she said, citing a necessity to meet with local and state officials to ensure that their needs are being fulfilled.
“That is my first order of business,” she added…
Just before McCarthy addressed the media Wednesday afternoon, members of the Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations released a letter they sent to President Barack Obama requesting federal resources. In the letter, the group also said the federal government should explore creating a water-treatment plant in the Upper Animas River to remove heavy metals from the watershed at its source.
While the EPA says it’s treating contaminated water still flowing from the Gold King Mine, three adjacent mines continue to release more than 540 gallons per minute of waste laced with heavy metals.
Asked about what politicians across the Southwest have complained was a slow response by the EPA to notify the public of the spill, McCarthy said, “We will address those issues as we look at the investigation. … .
“The most important thing is we are moving forward. We are fully ramped up. We have data coming in. We can assess that data.”
Wednesday afternoon, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment informed the city of Durango that “drinking water treatment facilities can begin to use the Animas River to collect and treat water for customers.”
The Animas River in La Plata County, including Durango, remains closed by authorities. The county sheriff’s office has not said when it will reopen the water. Meanwhile, local businesses that rely on the Animas’ flow remain shuttered.
EPA officials Wednesday said the plume of contaminants is approaching Lake Powell in Utah and that apparatus are in place there to conduct testing.
“We are already there,” McCarthy said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, saying his state has mobilized resources.
A spokeswoman for the San Juan Basin Health Department on Wednesday said results of water testing on private wells in the area have not been returned but are expected “very soon.” A county spokeswoman says the EPA is paying for the tests.
The department earlier this week said a call center set up to answer questions and take requests for well testing was “overwhelmed.” Samples have been sent to labs in Denver and Georgia.
From email from the Eagle River Watershed Council:
Join us for a special Water Wise “Thursday” brought to you by the 6th Graders of Homestake Peak School of Expeditionary Learning. After an in-depth, multiple month study, these students are ready to teach you “the what, the so what, and the now what?” of the Eagle Mine Superfund Site.
The event will take place Thursday, May 16th at 5:30 at the Walking Mountains Science Center. The students will begin with a living history museum where you can chat with figures of the past and then, they take you in depth into the history, science and future of the Eagle River. Beverages and appetizers will be provided.
More Eagle River Watershed coverage here and here.
After many years of Eagle Mine cleanup — cleanup of contaminants such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and zinc — the river is pretty healthy, [Melissa MacDonald] said.
“It’s pretty good. It meets the existing standard for the river,” said MacDonald, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council. “We’d like a little higher standard, but currently they’re doing a good job.”
“They” are CBS, the media company, formerly Viacom. They acquired the Eagle Mine in the mid-1980s as part of some other deal. What they acquired was a Superfund site, designating the Eagle Mine as one of the nation’s most polluted places.
More Eagle River watershed coverage here and here.