Snake River cleanup gets jump start |

Snake River cleanup gets jump start

SUMMIT COUNTY ” Long-running efforts to improve water quality in the Snake River will get a jump start this month, as Trout Unlimited has hired an expert to coordinate the cleanup.

At issue is heavy metal contamination from abandoned mines high in the basin. Together with naturally occurring minerals, the acid mine drainage has impaired water quality in parts of the Snake River, with concentrations of some metals exceeding state-set standards established to protect aquatic life.

“I’ll be working with the Snake River Task Force to get a liability agreement,” said Elizabeth Russell, who started her full-time gig May 15. Working from TU’s Boulder office, Russell said the overall goal remains the same: Improving water quality to the point that the Snake River can sustain a healthy trout population.

“We hope that within three years we can have it cleaned up,” Russell said, explaining that there are still some land ownership issues that need to be clarified before on-the-ground remediation begins.

The focus is on the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine site, which has long been eyed as the biggest source of pollution. Because of its high, remote location, there are some technical challenges associated with treating the metals-tainted water, but Russell said the task force, as well as the Blue River Watershed Group, have figured out a few design options for passive treatment systems that could work.

The key in all of this is working with the EPA to make sure that there is some sort of legal liability limiting agreement, Russell said. TU is willing to sign on to a deal as the primary party taking on the responsibility of the cleanup ” as long as it doesn’t end up taking on the liability for the pollution in perpetuity, Russell said.

The organization recently completed a similar agreement with the EPA in Utah in a deal that was touted as a potential template for work in the Snake River Basin.

“We want the same types of protection as in the previous agreement in Utah. It allows us to go in and do the work without a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. We’re not planning on being involved forever. We need to be able to walk away at some point,” Russell said.

She praised the work of the Snake River Task Force, which has compiled a wealth of water quality information during recent years. More sampling is going on right now, to gather data about the metals concentrations at different flow levels.

“Now’s the time to use that information and do the on-the-ground work,” Russell said.

On another track, Congress is once again considering a so-called Good Samaritan bill ” legislation that would provide liability relief for voluntary cleanup efforts. Similar measures have been kicked around by federal lawmakers for years, but have generally died as environmental groups and mining interests failed to find common ground.

The latest measure has some bipartisan support, as well as backing from the EPA, and may have a better chance of making it through Congress.

The Blue River Watershed Group is studying passive treatment technology, involving a static limestone bed, a settling pond and a sulfate-reducing “bio-reactor” that could be effective in reducing the acidity of the water.

It’s not clear if the Snake could ever be cleaned up to point of meeting existing water quality standards, at least not within reasonable cost limits, said Lane Wyatt, of the Summit Water Quality Committee.

A formal use-attainability study could set the stage for setting more realistic targets, he said, explaining that a brook trout fishery is an attainable goal.

At a recent Blue River Watershed Group meeting, Wyatt said there area some fundamental questions about water quality issues in the Snake River Basin that need to be answered. Is it worth pouring more time and money into studies and cleanup efforts? Is it possible to restore the stream to a point where the public sees some real benefit, Wyatt asked.

State officials say the federal Clean Water Act requires a cleanup.

“There are potential legal consequences for ignoring violations of federal and state water quality standards,” said Bill McKee, a water quality expert with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. McKee said, “The EPA could come in and declare the whole area a Superfund site,” he added, outlining a worst-case scenario.

“You need to have some semblance of a fishery in there to meet the intent of the Clean Water Act,” he said. “We need to support aquatic life, but we need to be realistic in what we can achieve,” McKee concluded.

The cleanup could also be important in the context of increasing demands for clean water throughout the Snake River drainage and the rest of the state, said Mary Davis Hamlin, the Keystone Center facilitator who has been guiding the Snake River Task Force efforts. Hamlin and Wyatt both explained how the pollution problem has already had economic ramifications in the basin, primarily for ski areas trying to ensure adequate snowmaking water supplies.

For more information, and to offer input, visit the Blue River Watershed Group online at, and the Snake River Watershed Task Force at

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