Martin McComb stood on a gigantic mass of rock and debris outside the main portal of the Pennsylvania Mine on Friday.
The pile was extracted and brought outside during the mine’s operation years ago.
Just a month ago, water trickled down through the debris, leaching out toxins as it flowed down toward Peru Creek and into the Snake River.
Throughout August, McComb, the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-scene coordinator, and his team have been diverting the main flow of heavy-metal-laden water coming from the mine away from the poisonous tailings piles. Environmental protection workers also set up a treatment system that raises the PH of the water in an effort to force some of the metals to drop out of it into a settlement pond before heading downstream.
“It’s all about reducing the amount of pollution that flows into the creek,” McComb said. “We are dealing comprehensively with what’s on top of the ground as well as what’s below the ground.”
The Pennsylvania Mine operated from the late 1880s into the early 1940s and produced more than $3 million of silver, lead and zinc. But since it closed, toxic effluent has leaked from its portals, through polluted tailings and into Peru Creek. The polluted creek water discharges into the Snake River — which feeds the Dillon Reservoir.
The Pennsylvania Mine has been identified as the largest single human-caused source of pollution contributing to Peru Creek and the Snake River, both of which are listed on Colorado’s Clean Water Action section list of impaired water bodies.
On average, the concentrations of zinc, aluminum, manganese and iron in runoff water increases four to 14 times as the water passes through the mine site, according to EPA documents. The increase in the concentration of copper, at 46 times, is the most dramatic.
McComb’s EPA team is embarking on phase one of a six-phase cleanup project at the site. In addition to water treatment efforts, the group has spent the past month improving road conditions to allow dump trucks and other heavy machinery access to the site.
The cleanup is expected to take three years and will involve numerous agencies, including the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, Summit County, the U.S. Forest Service, the Blue River and Snake River watershed groups and Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.
“It’s nice to see there are so many people involved in this project and in this watershed. I think it’s because it’s such a beautiful area, and near where so many people are living,” McComb said. “I hope we can make an impact — and think we already have.”
Cleanup efforts taken under the project plan will be phased over the next several years and will address threats from acidic discharge that is draining from the mine and tailings along with other mine waste found on the surface.
The bulk of the underground mine work will be conducted under the supervision of the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety. This summer, contractors under the supervision of senior project manager Jeff Graves are digging out a collapsed portion of earth that flooded the culvert in the mine’s portal F, and are working to gain easier access into the underground portions of the mine.
“They are really knowledgeable about underground work and have a lot of experience,” McComb said. “For us, it’s a good way to partner with people who are specialized and really know what they’re doing.”
Recreationists are asked to be patient during construction. Peru Creek Road will remain open, however there may be some brief periods of road closures. There will also be increased truck traffic throughout the summer.
“We are dealing comprehensively with what’s on top of the ground as well as what’s below the ground.”
EPA’s on-scene coordinator at the Pennsylvania Mine