A parade of trucks packed with about a dozen mining contractors drove up to the old Pennsylvania Mine on Wednesday morning. They drove over washed-out roads and over rubble along a narrow dirt pathway parallel to the Peru Creek watershed.
From a distance, the mine is an unassuming blip on the landscape. The abandoned wooden structure sits on a mountainside less than 10 miles from Keystone, one of Summit County’s most popular recreation destinations. But within the depths of the mine, a dangerous reaction is occurring. Rock is exposed on the walls of open pits and underground structures, triggering acid drainage.
The dilapidated mine has been spewing dangerous levels of toxic metals into the watershed for more than a hundred years. The toxins flow into Peru Creek and the Snake River, which feed into the Dillon Reservoir — a major water source for the Front Range.
The contractors arrived at the mine dressed in heavy-duty gear, hard hats, headlamps and waders, prepared to investigate the site and make a bid to complete an underground rehabilitation project on the Penn Mine’s Level F portal. Their work is one of the first phases of a cleanup plan that will be phased over the next several years.
Project organizers plan to install at least one bulkhead in order to plug, or, at least, slow the flow of polluted water from the mine and improve water quality in the streams below.
An investigation by the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety set the stage for the upcoming cleanup project. Until recently, portals were collapsed at the mine entrance.
“The water was backed up in the tunnel and was spewing out all over the place. So last summer we had to dig it all out and install this big culvert,” Bruce Stover, director of the inactive mine reclamation program in the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety.
This summer, the miners, led by senior project manager Jeff Graves, will dig out a collapsed portion of earth that flooded 10 to 15 feet of the 100-foot-long culvert. Then, they will work to widen a 3-foot-high by 3-foot-wide “gnome hole” to gain easier access into the underground workings of the mine, Graves said.
“Part of this project is designed to stabilize the ground and widen the portal into something we can fit into and get equipment inside,” he said.
Once inside the underground portal, miners will drill bolts and install equipment to firm up the inner working of the mine, Graves said. The project manager said he also hopes the work will provide insight into what the final product might look like.
“This rehabilitation is prep work for the bulkhead, but it will also allow us to take a more detailed look at the conditions,” Graves said.
“We were only able to go underground twice and it wasn’t in ideal conditions.”
Although the Pennsylvania Mine Project is large and complex as a whole, this phase of the project is pretty straightforward, Graves said.
“It’s very similar to the work to establish a new mine. It requires the same methods, same equipment and same skill sets,” he said.
Mark Levin is one of the contractors who came to investigate and potentially bid on the project earlier this week. His company, Mining and Environmental Services, specializes in underground mine contracting and mine engineering.
“This is exactly the kind of work we are expert in doing,” he said.
The project, which will take place throughout summer, is designed to improve conditions so scientists and other workers can continue investigations within the mine. The miners who will embark on the project take safety measures seriously, Levin said.
“We categorize the hazards of a project, and with each hazard, we identify ways to mitigate that hazard and reduce the risk,” he said. “A lot of it is standard stuff we are familiar with, and the miners we employ have done these types of things most of their working lives.”
Although the work slated to be done inside the mine this summer is standard for the mining community, Levin said bidding on the project isn’t as clear. Potential project bidders could only see about 85 feet into the culvert before the dirt collapsed into the structure.
“Everything beyond that is going to be an educated guess based on the photographs from last year,” Levin said. “So nobody knows how bad it is. That’s going to be the challenge for anybody bidding this. There is going to be some financial risk proposing on unknown conditions.”
The Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety representatives said they will award the project to the contractor with the lowest bid. The contractor will also have to prove they have prior experience with similar projects, and that they have the right equipment for the job, Graves said.
The opening date for the project is July 10. The contractors will have about 75 days to complete the work.
“The folks with the state are generally fair with the contractors, and the contractors who do this try to be fair with the state,” Levin said. “If they get into something unusual I’m sure it will be worked out. But it is uncertain if you can’t see past the first collapse.”
Once a contract is awarded, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety project coordinator Graves will continue to oversee the operation. Representatives from the EPA will be conducting work simultaneously, prepping infrastructure to allow heavy equipment into the mine site.
The EPA’s on-scene coordinator, Paul Peronard, said in May that expects the entire mine cleanup project to take place over three years, and cost about $3 million.
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, the Blue River Watershed Group and the Snake River Watershed Task Force are also supporting the project.