Cost estimates for Summit County mine cleanup soar
summit daily news
SUMMIT COUNTY – Plans to treat tainted water oozing from the Pennsylvannia Mine are in flux again, as experts from various agencies explore the site to try and pinpoint the main sources of pollution.
Located along Peru Creek, a Snake River tributary above Keystone, the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine has been a vexing source of water pollution for decades. Water seeps through the tunnels of the mine and pick up significant amounts of heavy-metal pollution, leading to water quality problems farther downstream.
When Trout Unlimited signed on to coordinate the cleanup a few years ago, hopes were high that some sort of treatment system could be built to remove some of the heavy metals – primarily zinc – that degrades water quality in Peru Creek downstream in the Snake River.
In some stream segments, Concentrations of zinc exceed state limits and are high enough to kill trout within a few days. The long-term goal for stakeholders is to try and mitigate the pollution to the point that trout can survive and possibly even reproduce in the Snake River.
Some recent estimates for treating drainage from the abandoned mine range as high as $20 million, according to Trout Unlimited’s Liz Russell, who has been leading the effort the past couple of years. That amount includes construction and annual operations and maintenance for as long as 20 years, but it’s still much higher than expected. When Trout Unlimited entered the picture, there was speculation that a treatment plant could be built for under $1 million.
“All the work that’s been done up there paints a much more dire picture of what we need to do,” Russell said.
He said the stakeholders working on the cleanup had also hoped that Congress would have passed some Good Samaritan legislation by now. Such a liability limiting law would have eased the cleanup process by enabling a nonprofit to work on remediation without fear of being pinned with responsibility for the cleanup work forever.
One option that’s not on the table anymore is a Superfund designation for the Pennsylvania Mine. EPA officials previously suggested a Superfund listing would loosen up federal funding for a cleanup. But county officials were not keen on the idea of Superfund status for the mine, preferring to explore alternate options instead.
This summer, some of the research at mine is focused on treating other sources of pollution in the area besides the mine itself. State and federal experts are teaming up to find sites for repositories, where some of the mine waste could be stored in a place where running water can’t get to it. That could help reduce metals-loading into Peru Creek.
Summit Water Quality’s Lane Wyatt said said he’s working with state and federal agencies to obtain grant funding for a related cleanup project in nearby Cinnamon Gulch. That work would also involve moving old waste rock from the mine, and channelizing runoff to reduce contamination.
Technical experts will also try to see if there’s a way to prevent clean water from getting into the mine and picking up pollution. That could reduce the amount of treatment ultimately needed at the other end, Wyatt said.
“The focus was on discharge from the mine adit,” said the EPA’s Jean Mackenzie, who is leading government efforts at the site. “There are so many other things that can be done,” she said.
It’s not clear whether comprehensive treatment at the mine site will clean up the water to the point that the Snake River can sustain trout. A recently completed watershed study suggested that there are so many other sources of pollution, including natural ones, that the river may never be free of toxic heavy metals.
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