Officials puzzle over orange water near Breckenridge neighborhood |

Officials puzzle over orange water near Breckenridge neighborhood

Orange water trickles through piles of mine tailings behind the Wellington neighborhood. While the water is not a public health concern, the metals are toxic to fisheries downstream.
Elise Reuter / |

A proposed bus turnaround in Breckenridge’s Wellington neighborhood will be much more than a simple paving project. With the complex terms of a joint property purchase by the town and Summit County in 2005, the plan could require the approval of multiple state and federal agencies.

“The turnaround is one simple project but behind that is a complex legal issue,” Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said in a joint meeting with Breckenridge Town Council on Tuesday. “We can’t just go in even though we own it. Multiple agencies signed a consent decree to allow us to have open space and not have liability for the toxic mine issues that were and still are there.”

Just east of the Wellington neighborhood, near the property boundaries of the last row of homes, runoff traveling through piles of mine tailings has created a few “orange ponds” that are not only unsightly in appearance, but also an environmental hazard, as well.

Summit County Open Space and Trails director Brian Lorch said the metals contaminating the water are an aquatic issue rather than a human health issue but still worth addressing.

“We have more concentrations of iron and zinc in our multivitamins than in that water,” he said. “But the fisheries are susceptible. That’s why we’ve been doing so much in these mine cleanups.”


The proposed plan is to simultaneously solve the problems of the ponds and the turnaround by filling in the contaminated water with tailings, building a bus turnaround in that location. The new turnaround would allow Breckenridge Free Ride buses to continue along French Gulch Road, turning around before reaching Country Boy Mine instead of passing directly through the neighborhood streets.

“They originally had the bus running through Wellington,” Stiegelmeier said. “People didn’t think it was safe because they had so many kids running around.”

With the changes in the buildout of the neighborhood, the location near the orange ponds was determined to be the best spot for a turnaround.

While cleaning up the mine waste is an allowed use of the land, constructing a turnaround would require approval from the Environmental Protection Agency at minimum and possibly each agency in the agreement.

“It may be easy to get agencies to sign off on it as a reasonable use, but it would take amending the whole (consent agreement),” Stiegelmeier said. “It will take some time and could take a long time, depending on the agencies involved.”

Lorch said they were currently working on getting approval from the EPA, as well as determining whether approval from the rest of the stakeholders will be necessary.

“We want to make sure first we’re on board with the EPA,” he said. “It’s not your average paving project I guess.”


The original land acquisition took five years of negotiation, with the county and town ultimately purchasing more than 1,800 acres in Breckenridge’s “golden horseshoe” area, formerly a combination of U.S. Forest Service and privately-owned land.

As part of the unique negotiations to obtain the land as open space, the town and the county signed a consent degree defining their responsibilities for the property. This led to the creation of the water treatment plant at the Wellington-Oro Mine Site — as well as two large-scale cleanups of the Jessie Mill and the Royal Tiger Mine — and an additional agreement to only use the land for open-space purposes.

In total, the agreement involves seven different entities, including the EPA, Department of Justice, Fish and Wildlife Service, state department of Health and Environment in addition to the Division of Wildlife.

“It sets the boundaries for what the town and county are responsible for,” Lorch said.

Any work on the “orange ponds” by the town or the county would be voluntary.

“It’s an extensive array of mines all the way up there,” Stiegelmeier said. “There have been some really good efforts to clean out heavy metals. There are still millions of dollars of projects to do to clean it all up.”

While the project is currently under discussion by Breckenridge and the county, the developers of the Wellington neighborhood have been kept up to speed with the conversation.

“We’re contributing $10,000. Other than that, we’re not really involved,” said Courtney Kenady with Poplar Wellington, LLC.

Local resident Gretchen Hamilton brought forward a petition with 60 signatures from local residents supporting the construction of a bus turnaround this season, preferably at the site of the orange ponds. Another stipulation of the petition would be to convert a proposed vehicle bridge by the developer on Bridge Street to a pedestrian bridge.

“Anything that increases traffic on the internal streets of the neighborhood should be avoided,” she said.

Town council members inquired as to the timing of the project, though county attorney Jeff Huntley couldn’t provide a date without knowing how many approvals would be needed.

“Our citizens are looking for answers,” Mayor Pro Tem Mark Burke said.

“We have to get started on this project,” county manager Gary Martinez said. “But there’s a lot of other stuff here that could go flying out of the window if we aren’t careful.”

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