The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped in to help Summit County speed up Montezuma Road repair work after part of the road washed out in early June.
The EPA and several partner organizations need the road fixed so they can drive concrete trucks and heavy machinery over it to reach the site of the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine.
The mine, in operation from 1879 to the 1940s, is 8 miles east of Keystone and has created one of Summit County’s most polluted watersheds in a popular year-round recreation area.
Officials have worked on site since 2012 to reduce heavy metal flows from the mine into Peru Creek and the Snake River.
Martin McComb, one of two on-scene EPA coordinators for the project, said he discussed how to best install a bridge over the damaged road with county officials, including county engineer Robert Jacobs Wednesday, June 25.
“We’re going to move as fast as we can,” Jacobs said.
He was hesitant to give dates, but he said the EPA has helped move his goal of repairing Montezuma Road forward about two months so that mine reclamation crews can access the area sometime in August.
The area around the damaged road will stay closed to everyone except people accessing their homes until Montezuma Road construction is completed. Residents are currently using a bypass road.
The county is working with contractors to engineer and manufacture the bridge, while the EPA will focus on stabilizing the banks of the river and might provide other support.
“We don’t envision a huge delay right now,” McComb said, of the scheduled parts of the reclamation project, a collaboration among the EPA, the state Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, the Snake River Watershed Taskforce, Summit County government and the Forest Service.
The EPA will mobilize July 7, McComb said, to finish preparing the dirt Peru Creek Road for workers with the state Division of Reclamation Mining, who plan to install a bulkhead inside the mine this summer.
Bulkheads essentially are giant concrete corks, said Jeff Graves, senior project manager and geological engineer for the division, during a project update at a Snake River Watershed Task Force meeting in Keystone in February.
The Pennsylvania Mine was identified years ago as the primary man-made source of heavy metal contamination — including aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc — in Peru Creek, which feeds the Snake River and eventually Dillon Reservoir.
Although not a primary health risk for humans, the zinc dissolved in the water makes it difficult for fish to exchange oxygen, or breathe.
Currently, water flowing out of the mine contains zinc levels ranging between 80 to 140 parts per million, which has decimated trout numbers to zero in Peru Creek and some sections of the Snake River.
Workers identified two sources of contaminated water inside two of the mine’s six drifts, or tunnels.
Because oxygen plays a significant role in the contamination level of water flowing out of the mine, Graves said at that February meeting, bulkheads will prevent contaminated water from flowing into Peru Creek by backfilling water into the mine, thus reducing the amount of oxygen it contains.
The water, then cleaner than what is currently flowing out of the mine, will be dispersed over a larger area to allow nature to naturally remediate the dissolved zinc out the water before it flows into Peru Creek, Graves said.
Currently, water flowing out of Pennsylvania Mine has a Ph level of about 3.5 to 4. Although a neutral Ph level is 7, Graves said streams, rivers and rain water are naturally a little acidic, meaning a healthy stream might have a Ph level of about 6.5.
After installing a bulkhead this summer, crews will determine whether a second bulkhead will need to be added next summer.