Snake River Watershed Task Force creates model for mine cleanup projects |

Snake River Watershed Task Force creates model for mine cleanup projects

Remnants of the Pennsylvania Mine.
Photo by Kim Fenske

After a major project to clean up the Snake River watershed due to acid mine drainage from the Pennsylvania Mine, project members say the effort can serve as a model for other communities to restore an area damaged by mining.

A report has been released by the Snake River Watershed Task Force and Keystone Policy Center detailing progress on the Pennsylvania Mine project, including improvements in some of the heavy metal concentrations below the mine.

According to the report, the Pennsylvania Mine was considered one of the state’s most problematic and polluting inactive mines.

While the major pieces of the project are complete, Summit County Open Space & Trails Director Brian Lorch said monitoring and work on the project — which began in the late 1990s — will be ongoing and that hundreds of mining claims in the area will continue to be addressed.

“There was an attempt by the state and a bunch of volunteers to go up and put in a passive treatment system up there — kind of revolutionary at that time — to try to figure out some way to address it,” Lorch said. “The (Environmental Protection Agency) had a finding … under the Clean Water Act, if someone takes on a project, they have to bring it up to Clean Water Act standards, which basically made the state and that volunteer effort walk away from the project.”

Then in the early 2000s, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area was attempting to get a snowmaking operation up and running but found that water pulled from the north fork of the Snake River caused water quality issues downstream through Keystone and possibly down to Dillon Reservoir.

In response, the Snake River Watershed Task Force was formed by the U.S. Forest Service to address the water quality issues.

Keystone Policy Center Senior Policy Director Julie Shapiro said the center’s goal was to bring stakeholders together to identify specific watershed issues.

“There were a lot of issues to work through over time, including, in the beginning, even assessing what the problems were and understanding the challenges on the landscape and where the cleanup opportunities were,” Shapiro said. “From there, (it was) trying to understand how to implement action.”

The Clean Water Act requires whoever attempts to clean up a watershed to bring it up to Clean Water Act standards, which Lorch said isn’t always feasible.

“We’ve come up with a way to jump through this … stalemate for most people that wanted to address mine cleanups that have Clean Water Act issues, which means draining onto an adjacent property, basically,” Lorch said. “What the Pennsylvania Mine project is, is rather than taking on active treatment, it is a set of bulkheads which close up the mine so that it doesn’t drain. It drains in, say, a set flow, and that backs the water up into the mine.”

Lorch explained that the two main issues with uncontrolled flow out of the mine are raising and lowering of water within the mine causing water acidification, which leads to acid mine drainage, and water that emerges from the mine causing killoffs of fish in the lower Snake River. While the project did not treat the water to a set specification as part of the Clean Water Act, those major issues were addressed by suppressing water flow out of the mine.

Lorch said the site has been monitored over the past two summers and that the results show a substantial improvement in water quality at the mine and just below the mine. However, downstream efforts are clouded by the effects of other mineral sources, which means the task force still has work to do.

“It may take years or generations to fully realize the positive impacts of the cleanup work and to see significant improvements in the water quality,” Summit County Senior Resource Specialist Jason Lederer wrote in a news release.

Lorch said this is because of the amount of heavy metals and minerals in the substrate of the stream.

“What was done right here in Summit County with collaboration on this particular drainage is unique, and it’s special, and it hopefully serves as a model for other collaborative cleanup efforts in Colorado and beyond,” Shapiro said. “I think the people and their willingness to be creative and work together over a long time frame was really the key to success.”


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