Cleansing the watershed
Separate projects work to lighten contamination in the Animas

Sidebar: Taking a glance at water issues in the Upper Animas

Old mine sites, like this one north of Silverton, are being blamed for sullying the waters of the Animas River and have been targeted for cleanup./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Ash and silt have consistently put local water quality in the headlines in recent months. However, hidden contaminants have been flowing through the Animas River since the turn of the century and earlier – the leach of natural mineral deposits and toxins from hundreds of former mines and their associated waste. One local group, the Animas River Stakeholders, has been working for nearly a decade to reduce the metal load and enhance the water quality of the Animas. The Forest Service also will be trying its hand at improving local water quality with plans for its first large-scale, mine cleanup, but there are concerns that the federal agency may not be up to the challenge.

Bill Simon, Animas River Stakeholders Group watershed coordinator, explained that from its source tributaries in and around Silverton to its confluence with the San Juan River in New Mexico, the Animas River is tainted with heavy metal and acid load. The river contains traces of aluminum, cadmium, iron, copper, magnesium, lead and zinc, among other metals.

“There’s a lot of natural leach, and the river’s been further degraded by historical mining practices,” Simon said. “The river is impacted all the way down to its confluence with the San Juan in New Mexico.”

The Animas River Stakeholders Group (ARSG) is a volunteer organization that was created in 1994. It has worked to combine public, private and citizen efforts to improve the water quality and aquatic habitats of the Animas. The formation of the group was a response to the watershed’s failure to meet requirements of the Clean Water Act and frustration with bureaucratic efforts to improve local water quality. Simon said that because of the efforts of the stakeholders and natural changes, the Animas River now meets requirements as it flows through Durango. However, the upper basin is still in need of big help.

An abandoned mine structure near Red Mountain
Pass. Heavy metal load in the Animas has been
traced to old mine sites. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“In Durango, the water has cleaned up to the point where we’re in compliance with the Clean Water Act,” he said. “It could still be better, and the upper basin is not in compliance. Certain streams there have no life.”

In collaboration with Sunnyside Gold Corp., the stakeholders group has facilitated partial clean-ups on Silverton-area mines with names like Galena, Hercules, San Antonio and Carbon Lake. The total price-tag has come to $23 million. Prior, the stakeholders had evaluated roughly 1,500 different mine sites in the Silverton area and highlighted 34 draining mine adits (horizontal shafts) and 33 mine waste sites in need of clean-up. Simon said that eliminating these sources of pollution will eliminate 90 percent of the pollution load, and the group is working on a 20-year timeline to come into compliance.

“The $23 million did a lot of work on sites that would have made the list,” Simon said.

Early last month, the Animas River Stakeholders Group took another step toward compliance with the purchase of water rights and easements on the Carbon Lake ditch. Located near the summit of Red Mountain Pass, the ditch had funneled water out of North Mineral Creek and the watershed, over the pass and into the Uncompahgre River. With the purchase, 15 cubic feet per second of flow will be restored to the creek and dilute the metal load. In addition, cleanup has begun on the Kohler Mine near Red Mountain Pass a proven contaminator of North Mineral Creek.

The Brooklyn Mine northwest of Silverton near the ghost town of Gladstone is another mine on the group’s priority list. The mine is moderately sized, but its waste was spread widely over a hillside that is publicly owned National Forest. Consequently, the stakeholders will not have a leading role in the planned cleanup. The Forest Service is working on a proposal to clean up the mine site and improve Animas River water quality. An engineering evaluation has looked at options for closing adits, rerouting or treating mine-drainage water, and removing, treating or capping acid-generating waste rock. To this end, the San Juan National Forest is currently accepting public comment on the proposal.A0

Stephanie Odell, San Juan Abandoned Mines Coordinator, noted, “We’re trying to determine if we’ll proceed with the project.”

The Forest Service is looking at a two-pronged approach to cleaning up the Brooklyn mine. First, Odell said that the mine waste would be removed, placed in a pit known as a glory hole and covered. “What we’re hoping to do is take some tailings that are really hot and put them in a glory hole and cap them,” she said.

Secondly, the water draining from the mine must be stopped. Odell said there is suspicion that the water is entering the mine through the glory hole, which is located on higher ground. “Some people suspect that the water coming out of the adit is coming from our glory hole above it,” she said. “We’re going to cap it and see if the water stops. It’s one of those things where you just have to see if it works.”

The cost of the work is estimated at $245,000. However, Odell is quick to remark, “I hate to even quote that figure before a request for bids. There’s always room for that to change.”

The Brooklyn Mine will represent a huge leap for the local Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, being the largest mine reclamation the local agencies have ever undertaken. “These kinds of projects have been done before, but the Forest Service and BLM haven’t done anything like this yet,” Odell said.

Simon said that the Animas River Stakeholders Group sees several significant problems with the Forest Service plan and will be commenting. “They didn’t do an engineering analysis,” he said. “They did a preliminary engineering analysis. What they’re proposing to do is questionable at best.”

Simon cited failure to invite local contractors as another problem with the Forest Service plan. “One of the major problems is it’s designed so that local contractors can’t bid on it,” he said. “That’s a real problem for a community like Silverton.”

Lastly, Simon said that federal agencies take a roundabout approach to such projects, and once the work begins, they rush through them. He said federal failure to address the watershed’s ills was a primary reason the stakeholders formed in the first place. “We generally take a much different approach,” Simon said. “That’s in a nutshell why we formed. We try to address these projects in a more practical manner. They’ve kind of slam dunked these things in the past.”

For more information, see the SJNF Web site at or call Odell at 385-1353.









News Index Second Index Opinion Index Classifieds Index Contact Index