Blue River is back to blue |

Blue River is back to blue

Summit Daily/Kristin Skvorc

BRECKENRIDGE ” Orange-color drainage from the abandoned Iron Spring mine and mill site subsided Monday evening, a day after the normally pristine Blue River turned the color of carrot juice.

“There seems to be only a slight bit of discoloration,” said town of Breckenridge spokeswoman Kim DiLallo, after eying the river Tuesday morning in the vicinity of the Riverwalk Center.

Monday morning, a pulse of water from the old mine site surged down the Illinois Creek drainage along Boreas Pass Road, causing the Blue River to run bright orange for most of the day. Local officials took water samples to determine whether there was a discharge of metals associated with the event, and Tom Kroening, of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, searched the stream for signs of dead fish.

Kroening scoured the river again Tuesday, and received the first reports of dead fish in the late afternoon.

“I had two calls within 15 minutes,” he said. A total of three dead fish were reported, all in the vicinity of the Dredge Restaurant, he said. Kroening will try to recover the fish from the pond and get them tested to figure out why they died ” whether of exposure to toxic metals or from a lack of oxygen due to Monday’s turbid water.

“It’s possible that (other) fish died and that we just aren’t finding them,” he said, explaining that scavenging raccoons could conceivably take the dead trout during the night. “I would expect that if it was toxic, and I’m not saying it was, that we wouldn’t have as high a mortality as a month from now when the river is stocked (with fish).”

There was no threat to the town’s water supply, which originates in Goose Pasture Tarn, above the spill on a different tributary. Concern centered around potential impacts to aquatic life, said Kroening and Andy Carlberg, director of the Breckenridge Sanitation District.

The sudden discharge may have occurred when a snow and ice dam blocking the addit gave way. That dam could have contained huge amounts of water during the winter, water that historically has seeped out of the mine in a steady trickle.

Flows from the many abandoned mine sites around the High Country can vary with the seasons, said Brian Lorch, a county water quality expert. Spring runoff can increase the flows, but spring is not typically the worst time for pollution, since the higher volume of water helps dilute the toxic metals ” including zinc, cadmium, arsenic and lead ” often associated with acid mine drainage.

For now, officials are watching and waiting for results of the water sample testing, and the town will continue to monitor the river, DiLallo said, adding that the expected high runoff could lead to other unforeseen events.

There’s not much that can be done in the way of mitigation or containment once such a spill happens, Lorch and other experts said.

The spill highlights the need for proactive remediation at abandoned mine sites.

“If this can happen in Summit County, where people are aware and keeping an eye out for this type of thing, it can happen anywhere in the West,” said Rob Roberton, Trout Unlimited’s (TU) western field coordinator for abandoned mine reclamation.

TU has recently taken on a lead role in the mine cleanup field, joining with the EPA to find solutions to liability issues that have hampered projects in the region.

Summit County is ahead of the curve on this front, with four projects either in the planning or design stages, including a treatment facility at the Wellington-Oro mine site, as well as some-low tech remediation at the nearby Jesse and Royal Tiger sites, and another project high in the Peru Creek Basin at the Shoe Basin mine.

Additionally, the Blue River Watershed Group and Trout Unlimited are teaming up to take another crack at the acid mine drainage oozing from the Pennsylvania Mine along Peru Creek, fingered a significant source of pollution in the Snake River watershed.

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at

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