Cleaning up the mess
Ryan Summerlin September 5, 2007
SUMMIT COUNTY – When the Blue River turned bright orange for a few hours last year, it was the first time many visitors – and even local residents – realized that the bustling gold and silver mines of yesteryear still can have a tangible impact on day-to-day life in Summit County.The message hit home again this year in early August, when a rainstorm sent a surge of chocolate-brown sediment and pollution sweeping down Peru Creek and into the Snake River, killing hundreds of stocked trout. Most of the fish in the stream may have died within just a few days, according to Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Jon Ewart, who tied the fish kill to a sudden change in acidity.Local officials have long known that the abandoned shafts and tunnels are the perfect breeding ground for a toxic witch’s brew of heavy metals. And while the risk to human health is often described as minimal, the metals – especially zinc – have a measurable impact on aquatic life.
Two of the three main drainages in Summit County, the Blue River and the Snake River, have sections where levels of metals are high enough to kill trout slowly over time. Last year’s spill that changed the Blue River to the color of carrots did not even come from one of the major abandoned mine sites. Instead, it was an old mine opening in a small side drainage that released a huge volume of polluted water all at once.The impetus for cleaning up abandoned mines comes in large part for the federal Clean Water Act, said Brian Lorch, an environmental planner with the county’s open space department.That powerful law, dating back to the 1970s, mandates cleanups for polluted rivers and lakes, setting specific standards to protect human health and aquatic life. Backed by the Clean Water Act, local officials in Summit County have aggressively tackled a number of projects in recent years aimed at improving the environment, in many cases through the county’s open space program.”There’s a desire to have open space on mine-scarred land,” said Lorch. “We’re creating public amenities instead of living among the spoils of the past,” he said.Locally, the political will has been in place to pursue cleanups, with strong backing from the public and the Board of County Commissioners. County and basin master plans all include language addressing environmental remediation. Those documents provide the framework for site-specific projects.
And by leveraging grants from state and federal sources, the county has tackled projects without spending huge amounts of local tax money, Lorch said. “If we can do this without spending taxpayer dollars, why shouldn’t we?” Lorch asked.Dredge rock Reclaiming local waterways isn’t just a matter of cleaning up the toxic metal pollution. Miles of local streams were turned inside-out when dredge boats churned up the gravel on the river-bottoms, leaving a rocky wasteland in place of lush willow thickets, beaver ponds and stately cottonwood groves.
One successful project centered on removing those piles of dredged rock from around the Blue River between Frisco and Breckenridge, at Fourmile Bridge. The ambitious project was aimed not only at improving the aesthetics of the area, but at recreating aquatic and streamside habitat. A recent fish count by the Colorado Division of Wildlife showed that self-sustaining fishery is becoming re-established in that stretch of the river, Lorch said.The town of Breckenridge was ahead of the curve on the reclamation front when it restored the Blue River through town, and with a master plan in place for the entire Blue River corridor, Lorch said more reclamation projects are sure to come. The Swan River, also heavily scarred by dredging, is on the radar screen, Lorch said.Piles of tailings have also been identified as potential environmental threats in some areas. This summer’s controversial cleanup of the Claimjumper site on Airport Road in Breckenridge showed that area residents are attuned to potential health risks from rock tainted with high levels of lead and arsenic.Water treatment
The biggest environmental issue is clearly related to the acid drainage from abandoned mines. The two biggest polluters are the Wellington-Oro mine in French Gulch and the Pennsylvania mine, high in the Peru Creek drainage. Both sites have been studied at length. In both cases, passive treatment won’t be enough. Instead, the water will have to be treated directly to remove some of the pollutants.Remediation at the Wellington-Oro site is well under way. Groundbreaking on a water treatment plant is still planned for this year, Lorch said. When the facility begins operating next year, it will remove much of the zinc that has degraded water quality downstream. Based on the results of a pilot treatment project, the plant should improve water quality to the point that a self-sustaining fishery can be re-established in the Blue River, downstream of its confluence with French Gulch.Similarly, the Snake River is tainted with metals from Peru Creek. For several miles downstream of Keystone, concentrations of metals, especially zinc, are so high that fish and aquatic insects are hard-pressed to survive. Like the Blue below Breckenridge, that section of the Snake has been on a list of impaired rivers and slated for a cleanup.The abandoned Pennsylvania Mine has long been pinpointed as the one of the key sources of toxic metals in the drainage. Previous plans for a treatment facility at the site faltered years ago, partly due to Clean Water Act liability issues, which complicate cleanup efforts. But the latest collaborative effort looks more promising. Working together, key local, state and federal stakeholders are at the point of laying plans for a treatment facility at the Pennsylvania site. Again, the goal is to get water quality to a point that fish can survive in the river.Trout Unlimited, a cold-water fisheries conservation group, has stepped up to the plate in a big way, willing to take on initial responsibility for getting the treatment plant up and running. That may break the liability logjam and enable the partners to build a water treatment plant in the next few years.
One remediation project in the Snake River Basin is already on the books. The county’s open space program took the lead in tackling a small-scale project at the Shoe Basin mine. Moving piles of tainted rock back from the river bank to avoid direct contact with the water. Once again, the work was funded largely by grants, with a boost from Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s owner, Dundee Realty USA, who kicked in $20,000 as part of a mitigation agreement related to the ski area’s diversion of snowmaking water from the clean North Fork tributary.Cleaning up local streams and rivers makes sense in an era when recreation is the basis of the local economy. Clean, clear mountain streams are a big part of this area’s appeal. “We’re taking these environmental liabilities and turning them into public amenities” said Lorch.