These mines are our mines
January 19, 2013
Wood pilings jutting out of mounds of snow are the only signs that something is unusual about the stretch of land just past the Breckenridge ice rink on Boreas Pass Road. Check a text and you’ll miss it.
In 2006, however, runoff from the abandoned Iron Springs Mill turned the Blue River bright orange. The event killed fish and elevated levels of toxic minerals in the water, including zinc, iron, arsenic, lead and aluminum.
On Friday morning, a large crowd gathered at the now-infamous site to listen to U.S. Sen. Mark Udall tout new federal regulations that remove the legal hurdles that have prevented concerned citizens from restoring orphaned mines that pose a significant threat to the environment.
Udall acknowledged that Colorado, particularly Summit County, owes much of its prosperity to the mining boom that began in the late 19th century. However, a lasting legacy of that industry, he said, is the 7,000 abandoned mining operations that now threaten the state’s current economic engine – outdoor recreation.
In December, Udall and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a new policy that allows private groups and individuals to clean mine sites. Now, they’re getting the word out by touring communities in Colorado that can benefit from the new policy.
“In addition to the physical hazards of dilapidated structures and open mine shafts, the toxic soup of heavy metals, like arsenic, lead and mercury, coming from some of these sites flows into our watersheds, impairing drinking water and killing aquatic and plant life for miles downstream,” the senator said in a written statement.
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Cleaning up mining messes after they’ve already polluted area streams is futile – like putting toothpaste back in the tube. Proactive remediation, environmental officials say, is the only way to address the problem. However, before the EPA’s Good Samaritan policy went into effect, groups looking to remediate orphan mines faced prohibitive legal liabilities that could potentially saddle them with overwhelming financial obligations.
Now, mine cleaners take on no liability or responsibility for the pollution at abandoned hard-rock mines.
Jim Martin, an EPA official present at Friday’s press conference, said the new rules can be credited to a joint effort from Udall and environmental groups such as Trout Unlimited, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee. He said that spirit of cooperation will be necessary for the work ahead.
“We’re really reaching out to potential Good Samaritans to work with us to go out and find a spot and get some work done,” Martin said.
Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, who spoke at Udall’s press conference, said that there are numerous abandoned mines through the area in need of remediation.
“The mining operations here are a historic draw,” he said. “However, some of this legacy is really negative.”
To be successful, he said the clean-up efforts will require the involvement – both in financial support and sweat equity – of area governments, environmental groups and individuals.