Scientists to survey B&B land to find mining hot spots
BRECKENRIDGE – Scientists, surveyors, open space specialists and public officials will comb the mountainous area east of Breckenridge this summer searching for environmental “hot spots” caused by mining.The county and the town of Breckenridge are in negotiations to purchase more than 1,800 acres of open space in the Golden Horseshoe for $9 million. The property, owned by B&B Mines, includes valley-bottom lands along French Gulch and the Swan River, as well as higher elevation scenic backdrops and popular recreational trails. Local officials also are working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to obtain a Prospective Purchaser’s Agreement, which is necessary to protect the governmental entities from environmental liability. The property includes at least three sites where mining took place and poses a hazard to the environment. Those sites include the Royal Tiger, Jessie and Wellington-Oro mines.The B&B acquisition team, which includes county and town attorneys and open space officials, met recently with the EPA, Department of Justice and the state Department of Health and Environment to review a draft analysis outlining how to address contamination issues.According to Breckenridge Town Manager Tim Gagen, the next step is to determine if there are other hot spots in the area. The analysis will then be finalized and the EPA will outline a list of clean-up alternatives.Preliminary analyses show the Jessie and Royal Tiger mines have surface contamination and some water seepage from the mines. Clean up should cost no more than $1 million, Gagen said.”That was kind of sticker shock to everyone,” he said. “No one thought there were that many problems at that site. But that’s by no means the final report. It’s just kind of a ballpark figure.”Scientists have addressed surface contamination at the Wellington-Oro mine complex by burying the piles of bright red contaminated soil to reduce the possibility of exposure. The EPA, however, wants a more definitive treatment plan, Gagen said.Although many problems at the Wellington-Oro mine are related to surface contaminants, spring runoff also plays a role. When the snow melts, the water table beneath the mines goes up and leeches heavy metals from the shafts. As the water level drops, the heavy metals, primarily cadmium and zinc, flow into French Creek.Scientists injected lime into the mine shaft in the past year. Lime attaches to the dissolved heavy metals, causing them to solidify and settle out of the water. So far, however, it doesn’t appear to be making a difference in the water downstream, Gagen said.”The theory is that this mine is honeycombed with thousands and thousands of miles of tunnels,”he said. “They think the (level of lime) hasn’t gotten to the concentration it needs. We could pump the lime in there for a long, long time and not have a direct effect.”Another clean-up alternative would involve building a treatment lagoon to divert water coming out of the mine complex into a lime-injection facility before pouring it into lagoons where the heavy metals would settle out into a sludge. The sludge could later be taken to a landfill – or poured back into the mine itself.”The idea is that, because there is already lime in the sludge, it will gradually raise the pH (of water in the mine) causing a natural solidification of metals in the water,” Gagen said. Scientists also think the sludge might fill crevices in the complex, thus keeping water out of the shafts and tunnels in the mountainside.The cost of building a treatment and lagoon facility could cost as much as $2 million, and up to $200,000 a year to operate.”It’s still driven by what kind of water quality we’re trying to achieve,” Gagen said. “We have to look at cost, practicality, reliability and how effective it is.”Town officials have often said they’d like the water coming out of French Creek to be as clean as that in the Blue River. Historically, they’ve measured the cleanliness of the river by how far fish travel upstream.”The habitat people are saying even if we have perfect water, we’re not going to get fish there,” Gagen said. “It has a lot to do with how the river flows. It raises the basic question: How much should we really be doing? If we’re never going to get a fish habitat, should we spend beaucoup bucks to get a habitat that fish won’t use?”The county, town, EPA and B&B Mines owners hope to address the contamination problems and close on the sale of the land by 2004. The final purchase price, Gagen said, will depend on how much it will cost to clean up the mines.”We always figured in the deal that the clean-up costs would be about $1 million to $1.5 million,” he said. “But it’s contingent on the real numbers.”Gagen said there is no estimate on how long clean up could take.”It might be that the contamination is coming from miles and miles of springs,” he said. “We may be treating water for 20, 30 years. The idea is to get the contamination down to a certain point, and once the regular pattern doesn’t exceed that point, then we’d back off the treatment.”
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