| 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
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
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
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
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
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 www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan
or call Odell at 385-1353.