EPA released preferred option to clean Breck mines
BRECKENRIDGE – Cleanup of mine contamination at the Wellington-Oro mine complex east of Breckenridge is one step closer to reality since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its preferred alternative this week.
The clean-up is a grassroots effort involving federal, state and local authorities, citizens, environmentalists and others concerned about toxic heavy metals leaching from the numerous shafts and tunnels in the mine up French Gulch. Dredge mining in the gulch ended in the 1960s, but the Wellington and Oro mines remained open, sporadically, into the 1970s.
The challenge over the past decade has been to determine the extent of the contamination and where the French Creek channel runs under the piles of river rocks left over from dredge mining. The EPA conducted numerous tests in 1989, finding that cadmium and zinc were the primary pollutants in the creek, and the Wellington-Oro complex was the source of that contamination.
Scientists determined metals in the tunnels, which are below the water table, are leached out of the ground as the water table rises and falls in the spring runoff. Metals have left the creek banks an unsightly orange and have threatened the health of fish downstream.
The EPA since has outlined and evaluated four alternatives to clean up the site, the first being a no action option. Some citizens have said in public meetings this could be the best option because fish have made their way slowly upstream over the years, possibly indicating heavy metal concentrations may be fading.
The second alternative – and the one the EPA prefers – involves running the creek water into a water treatment facility that adds lime to balance the acidity and another substance, called a flocculent, to cause heavy metals to fall out of the water. The mixture is then pumped to one of two ponds where the solids settle. As treated water overflows from the pond, the sludge is either pumped into the Oro mine shaft or disposed of at the landfill.
“The goal at the French Gulch site is to return the stretch of the Blue River to a self-sustaining brown trout fishery and to improve water quality in French Creek,” wrote Victor Ketellapper, remedial project manager with the EPA. “To accomplish this, the zinc and cadmium concentration of the water must be reduced. Both the EPA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment believe this alternative meets the goals and the criteria for feasibility, effectiveness and cost.”
Using the method, the EPA expects to reduce the cadmium concentration by 95 percent and zinc by 99.9 percent.
The costs of building and maintaining such a facility, however, range from $5.07 million to $6.813 million, depending where the sludge is disposed.
The third alternative is the same as the second, except flocculent wouldn’t be added to the water, there would be no settling ponds, and the lime-treated water would be pumped into the Wellington-Oro mine pool. The cost of this alternative is estimated to cost $3.151 million.
EPA officials said they were hesitant about using it however, in part because the technology behind it is unproven and there is potential for a “catastrophic release” of acidic water from the pool or other seeps into French Creek.
The fourth alternative would involve building a water treatment plant, similar to what is used at other mine sites in the state. Although the technology has been proven effective, the cost – $18.3 million over the next 30 years – would likely prove prohibitive.
County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom said he’d wait to hear public comment before making a decision whether he thinks the preferred alternative would be the best.
“If we can get rid of the heavy metals with ponds, that’s fine,” he said. “I’m just pleased that it’s not going to be a Superfund site.”
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