Summit County marks milestone as Pennsylvania Mine receives one of two pollution-preventing plugs
Sometimes, old mines burp.
Without warning or a “pardon me,” they let rip a mixture of heavy metals such as aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc. Like adding ice to absinthe, streams change colors, from milky blues to melted-caramel oranges and browns.
Fish and insects can’t survive long in the toxic soup. Humans wouldn’t want to drink it either.
Cleaning up the disastrous environmental legacy left by a century of mining activity has been, and will likely always be, at the top of Summit County’s to-do list. However, over the past two years, a series of legislative benchmarks and newly forged partnerships have enabled the county to deal with the problem more effectively than ever before.
And now the county is asking taxpayers to lend their support on Election Day. Part of ballot initiative 1A calls for increased funding over eight years for water quality efforts, including scrubbing the toxic mines that dot the backcountry.
Of the money raised by item 1A, about $630,000 a year would go toward environmental protection efforts, including mine reclamation projects.
“It’s a really conservative ask,” County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier told the Daily earlier this month. “We could spend truly billions of dollars to actually clean up the mess that we have.”
A summit MILESTONE
On Friday, Oct. 17, Stiegelmeier was one of several federal, state and local officials marking a milestone for the centerpiece of the county’s current mining cleanup efforts — plugging the Pennsylvania Mine.
About 8 miles east of Keystone, the abandoned mine is Summit County’s biggest mess. The mine, considered the worst in the state, spews toxic heavy metal concentrates and acidifies water flowing into the Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River, which feeds Dillon Reservoir. Peru Creek is without fish, insects or other aquatic life. The Snake River has life, but it’s sparse and found only in the lower reaches. In 2007, a burp of acidic water from the abandoned mine killed fish all the way to Keystone, county officials said.
This past week, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety finished installing one of two bulkheads, massive plugs of concrete and steel built about 500 feet inside the mine.
According to project manager Jeff Graves, once both bulkheads are installed, toxic burps and blowouts will be a thing of the past.
“That won’t happen again — it can’t,” he said.
The bulkheads prevent water from flowing through the mine. Water will back up inside, reducing the amount of oxygen the metals and sulfides are exposed to, which should improve water quality.
Though the more than $3 million project still has far to go, reclamation efforts seem to have had positive impacts already. Last year, the Peru Creek turned reddish-orange seven or eight times. That hasn’t happened once this year.
In addition to the bulkheads, new drainage ditches channel water away from waste-rock piles. Those piles have been capped. Eventually, they’ll be revegetated. Limestone has also been strategically added to raise the pH of the water, which could help filter out metals into settlement ponds.
Organizations involved in the project include: the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, Summit County Open Space and Trails, Northwest Council of Governments, the Snake River Watershed Task Force, the Blue River Watershed Group and the Keystone Center.
Alli Langley contributed to this report.
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