Toxic rocks to be taken from the Eagle Riverside | SummitDaily.com
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Toxic rocks to be taken from the Eagle Riverside

STEVE LYNN
eagle county correspondent

MINTURN ” Hundreds of tons of contaminated waste rock that could slide into the Eagle River will be removed beginning July 1, authorities said.

Excavation of the steep hill below the abandoned mining town of Gilman, south of Minturn, will begin about three years after the rocks were found to be polluted, authorities said.

The wooden barriers, or “cribbings.” that hold back the rocks are too old to withstand heavy rain, said Mike Holmes, project manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If the rocks slid into the river, zinc released from them would harm the reemerging brown trout population, Holmes said.

“Everybody thought it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when,” said Caroline Bradford, former director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, an Avon-based environmental watchdog group that identified the problem.

Researchers from Colorado State University studied the area at the Watershed Council’s request and found the rocks being held back by the cribbings were polluted, Bradford said.

“We’re very grateful for the EPA for taking a leadership role and protecting the Eagle River from the waste rock,” Bradford said.

The waste rock comes from a zinc mine abandoned in the late 1800s. Photos of the area, with the railroad tracks and Eagle River just below it, show the decrepit wooden logs, called “cribbings,” in place more than a century ago.

Workers will remove about 35,000 cubic yards of waste rock and will isolate it from water by burying and surrounding it with retaining walls a couple hundred yards upstream, said Hays Griswold, on-scene coordinator for the EPA.

Cribbings exist elsewhere in the area, but they won’t be removed because their failure doesn’t pose a threat to the river, Griswold said.

“They’ll never make it to the river, so we’re not concerned with those,” he said.

The EPA will pay for the project and has budgeted $1.5 to $2 million, but the cost could change because no one has attempted a project like this before, Griswold said.

“We’re really uncertain how much the cost will be,” he said.

Union Pacific railroad owns some of the property and will pay to build an access road and will provide the location for the waste rock repository, authorities said.

Several people own the property where workers will excavate. None changed the land enough to acquire liability, so the land’s owners “probably” would not have to help pay for the project, Griswold said.

The “government process” and negotiations with Union Pacific to use its land to get to the waste rock delayed the project, he said.

“When you get in a legal bind like that you just negotiate it out, unless it’s an emergency ” unless it’s a screaming emergency,” Griswold said.

Union Pacific has worked regularly with the EPA to schedule the work, said spokesman James Barnes. The time it took to negotiate the contract was “nothing out of the ordinary,” he said.

“We were both working in the interests in the environment to make sure things were done appropriately and that’s something that takes time to research,” Barnes said.

Workers are building the access road now, Barnes said.

The rock could still slide into the river before July, but federal officials hope that won’t happen, Holmes said.

“The Eagle River Watershed Council was instrumental in bringing about local concern and letting us know that this was a real potential problem,” Holmes said.

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or slynn@vaildaily.com.


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