Researchers track water flow out of toxic Breckenridge mine
August 16, 2016
On Monday afternoon, a government research team trekked through the sun-speckled woods above the Stephen C. West Ice Arena. The climbing is tiring on a hot day, and loose scree slid underfoot as the investigators scrambled up piles of mine tailings. Walking through the forest, they stepped on crackling pine needles and jumped over rivulets of bright orange water. The mission is to find out where this water came from and where it's going.
The team is injecting fluorescent, non-toxic, green dye into water that flows into the collapsed mine shaft on Illinois Gulch Road above Breckenridge. They're then observing and sampling the water downstream to see how much of the water filters through the mine and emerges on the other side. The hill has been mined all the way through and is rife with tailings and collapsed mine shafts. Contaminated water — a toxic tangerine from heavy iron — trickles out of the mine openings and along the ground, staining the dirt and rocks in its path.
"Basically, the study is to figure out how the water is draining from the mine sites," said Katherine Jenkins of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
A group of partner agencies is managing this several dayslong water tracer study at the Puzzle Willard Mine. The Illinois Gulch Tracer Study — led by Colorado Department of Natural Resources Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety and assisted by the Colorado Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service — is being conducted to trace the path of water flowing in creeks down Boreas Pass through the mine and out three adits, or openings.
“We have a lot of sampling data from over the years. We need to compile it and review it and look at it. This is a piece of a multi-year assessment.”Peter StevensonEnvironmental Protection Agency
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At each of the adits downstream, there is an automated sampler that tests for traces of the dye every few hours. After the injection of the dye into the mine site on Monday morning, the team will spend the next 7-10 days testing the water on the other side of the mine for traces of the dye, to see whether the contaminated water was making its way into the surface water in the Illinois Gulch drainage.
Peter Stevenson, of the EPA, explained that the mine runoff presents no danger to the drinking water of Breckenridge residents. He said the water sources for the town are located in other drainages, and everyone who lives up near Illinois Gulch Road uses Breckenridge water. However, a small amount of this water could make its way to Lake Dillon. The stream that runs through the mine is the headwaters of Iron Springs, which feeds into Blue River and then the lake.
At this point in the process, the investigation is intended to establish a baseline of the water quality at the site and then use the data to determine what further steps must be taken.
"After we figure out where the water goes, then we're going to come together with all of our partners and try to figure out what the next step is," said Jean Wyatt of the EPA. "We've done fish studies, we've done macro-invertebrate studies and we're still compiling all that data,"
When the amount of water that is actually running through the mine is found, the group can assess the situation and determine whether steps need to be taken and, if so, what the best method is for preventing the water from reaching the metals in the mine.
"We have a lot of sampling data from over the years. We need to compile it and review it and look at it. This is a piece of a multi-year assessment," said Stevenson.
The research team is leaving all its options for mitigation open until this assessment is complete, but they do have an expectation of what may happen to the mine tailings in the area that are not sitting in the drainage water.
"Ultimately, I would expect this to get shaped and capped somewhere nearby," said Stevenson.
But when considering cleanup tactics for the waterlogged mine, the team will just have to go with the flow.