A hard-truth tour of Summit County mines highlights sources of pollution
Ryan Summerlin June 24, 2013
Dozens of professionals wearing casual dress and nametags stepped off a tour bus onto rust-colored rocks just yards from piles of dredge gravel. A dark wooden structure, the remnants of the historic Wellington-Oro mining complex, dotted the horizon. A modern water treatment plant sat just across the street in the dry morning heat.
The group of about 30 men and women from across Colorado were making a stop on the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Upper Colorado Basin Tour.
Their tour took them hundreds of miles around the basin to destinations ranging from the Stillwater Campground on Lake Granby and Spur Ranch in Kremmling to Vail Pass and the Coal Basin restoration site.
The tour aimed to show participants the value of headwaters health for thriving communities and ecological sustainability and to demonstrate the importance of inter-agency partnerships and collaborations in water resource management.
The tour-goers were greeted by three local mining experts Friday morning in Breckenridge: Steve Swanson, director of the Blue River Watershed group; Jeff Graves, of the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining & Safety; and Brian Lorch, director of Summit County Open Space and Trails.
“We’ve got a nonprofit, county and state representatives all coming together here in Summit County addressing the legacy of hard-rock mining,” said Kristin Maharg, Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s program manager.
Although the trio of professionals don’t work for the same employer, they aren’t strangers. Almost all of Summit County’s mine-reclamation projects are a collaborative effort.
“The projects are typically large in scope and require a significant amount of funding,” Graves said.
While individual agencies may have trouble tackling the large-scale and complex reclamation sites on their own, they can work together to accomplish their goals.
“It’s a collaborative approach to try and achieve cleanup on sites,” Graves said.
The trio worked together on the French Gulch mining site tour-goers visited yesterday.
It was identified as one of Summit’s worst sites in terms of environmental quality. Gold, lead and zinc mining occurred off and on here from the 1860s to the 1970s.
The town of Breckenridge and Summit County bought 1,800 acres of land from B&B Mines in the early 2000s, agreeing to install an active water-treatment plant on the property.
“When we put it in during the 2006-2007 time period, it was very innovative technology,” Summit County’s Lorch said.
The norm at that time was to treat sites with lime, he said. If the county had treated the water with that process, it would have created big open red settling ponds with machinery running around on it.
Today, the treatment plant uses a chemical process to precipitate metals out of the mine water.
“The advantage of this technology is instead of thousands of tons of sludge that goes to a landfill, we have more like hundreds of tons that goes back to a smelter and is reused for the zinc in it,” Lorch said. “There is pretty much no waste created in that process.”
The next major reclamation project the agencies are involved with will take place at the Pennsylvania Mine site in the Peru Creek Watershed. Prior attempts to address discharge from the site have done little to improve the toxic water conditions. But a collaborative effort by the three local agencies, along with the EPA and U.S. Forest Service, will work to divert water from the site and seal polluted water within the structure, to curtail the amount of pollution seeping from the mine.
Graves is the lead on the project.
“Jeff has been really key in getting a project that was really dead in the water for a long time and move it forward,” Swanson said.
Swanson’s group, the Blue River Watershed, commissioned a study, called the “Snake River Watershed Plan,” that identified a “dirty dozen” mines that needed remediation work, Swanson said. To date, about half of those projects have been addressed.
The next project the Blue River group has planned is at Ten Mile Creek. It will include stream restoration to coincide with recpath construction near Copper Mountain Resort.
State Rep. Millie Hamner was one of the community members taking part in the Upper Colorado Basin Tour. Tour participants ranged from a cattle rancher to water officials and nonprofit representatives.
“It’s amazing collaboration you do working on big issues,” Hamner told the mine-restoration experts. “I really appreciate that.”