Summit County’s toxic Pennsylvania Mine unlikely to blow like Gold King
Orange, milky rivers could become a reality in Summit County’s future, as nearly every mountain is dotted with remnants of mining’s past.
Less than 10 years ago, the Snake River ran red from Keystone to Dillon Reservoir after a surge at the Pennsylvania Mine — long known as one of the most toxic abandoned mines in the state.
The mine has undergone a cleanup in recent years, and, at a public tour Tuesday, Aug. 11, a group of about 25 people asked about how the Pennsylvania Mine compares to a mine in southwestern Colorado where a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crew recently triggered a catastrophic blowout.
Three million gallons of acidic heavy metals from the Gold King mine in Silverton broke state water quality limits in Durango’s Animas River, leading to public outrage and state-of-emergency government declarations. Gov. John Hickenlooper called for increased efforts to address the legacy of mining.
Project managers at the Pennsylvania Mine said each of the two mines and their cleanup efforts are similar in many ways, but a disaster — like the Gold King blowout — is unlikely and will be near impossible after they finish their work this summer.
“Once the final plug gets in, the potential for having a catastrophic release, surge event, whatever you want to call it, will be significantly reduced if not eliminated,” said Jeff Graves, senior project manager for the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. “This site — at least from a catastrophic blowout standpoint — should be dealt with in about a month and a half.”
Graves said abandoned mine blowouts can happen at anytime, without human interference, and cleanups are inherently risky.
The EPA’s on-scene coordinator at the Pennsylvania Mine, Paul Peronard, agreed.
“It’s like working on the bomb squad. You have a set of techniques, but, every now and then, the bomb goes off,” Peronard said.
He said the reaction to the agency’s handling of Gold King might make the EPA more hesitant to take on future mining reclamation.
EPA TAKES RESPONSIBILITY
The Pennsylvania Mine was initially developed in 1879, according to the EPA, and produced gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc.
The mine is the largest anthropogenic contributor of heavy metals in the Snake River Watershed, which is the most impaired watershed in the state. Exposure to the metals can cause health problems in humans and wildlife.
For decades, government agencies and other interested parties faced liability and funding issues when determining how best to tackle the cleanup. The partners were able to move forward after new laws changed the liability landscape.
“When bad things happen, it becomes the EPA’s fault,” Peronard said. “That’s what lets the state come up and do the work. We provide liability coverage.”
By the end of this season, he said, project partners will have spent a total of roughly $3.5 million on the Pennsylvania Mine cleanup efforts, including about $1.8 million contributed by the EPA and $1 million from the state.
Other partners include 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 and other supporting groups like the Snake River Watershed Task Force and the Blue River Watershed Group.
Over the last few years, the EPA has tackled the above-ground cleanup while the state’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety worked underground.
Graves said the riskiest part of reclamation, in terms of mine collapses and blowouts, is at the beginning during investigation of the mine. Then, as workers stabilize the structure, the risk decreases.
In 2014, the first of two planned bulkheads, or giant concrete plugs, was installed deep inside the Pennsylvania Mine.
The bulkheads will block water from leaving through one large mine entry and stop water from flowing freely 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.
The process aims to return the flow of water to what was happening before mining, with ground water seeping out of the mountain in many different places.
“The hope is to return it to a pre-mining condition,” Graves said. “We would like to see the Snake River actually sustain fisheries.”
However, he had little hope for aquatic life above the Snake River in the Peru Creek basin, where the mine lies as well as sources of acid drainage that predate mining, he said, adding:
“It’s in pretty bad shape, and that could be just from the geology around here.”
The second bulkhead will be installed starting next week, and, once that finishes in late summer or early fall, the water flowing out of the mine will be reduced by 90 to 100 percent.
Next year, the state plans to install a third bulkhead, Graves said, with funding leftover after the first two cost less than budgeted. Then, he is looking into new technology, inoculating mines to kill the bacteria that catalyzes the reaction that causes acid drainage.
Meanwhile the state and the EPA will continue monitoring water quality. Peronard said the agencies will ask, “Is it working? Do we need to do more? What’s it going to cost to do more?”
The EPA also plans to work with a private landowner who has owned the neighboring Jumbo Mine property for about 40 years. Because that property owner didn’t cause the mine pollution, Peronard said, the EPA will pay for the cleanup, which will likely cost less than a tenth of the Pennsylvania Mine reclamation.
Brian Lorch, the county’s Open Space and Trails Department director, said the Pennsylvania property is owned by a small company called TransPacific Tourism of Colorado, which was formed by a Colorado couple specifically to buy the 169-acre property in 1990 and then sell it to foreign investors.
The investors walked away after the mine’s environmental problems became apparent, leaving the couple stuck with the property ever since, Lorch said.
The county then worked with the landowners to create a restrictive covenant in 2008 that transferred all development rights off the property, he said, and the county would like to buy the land to protect it as open space if the mine is ever cleaned up enough that liability isn’t an issue.
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