Animas River Stakeholders Group focuses on problems at Cement Creek.
By Mark Esper
Improving water quality in Cement Creek won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap.
The Animas River Stakeholders Group is still “brainstorming” ways to address the issue, aware that past efforts have had some unintended consequences and the problem is remarkably complex.
The stakeholders group led a tour of various mine-cleanup projects throughout the region last Thursday, Sept. 16, pointing to some successes — and some ongoing challenges — in the group’s efforts to reduce contamination in the watershed from decades of mining.
Bill Simon, coordinator of the stakeholders group, which was formed as a collaborative approach to water quality issues in 1994, said Cement Creek has seen a steady increase in metals loading since a treatment plant at Gladstone was shut down in 2004.
That shutdown was the result of a court order in a lawsuit involving a complicated property dispute.
The water treatment plant had been operating since the early 1980s, in conjunction with the Sunnyside Mine, which closed in 1991.
Just above the site in Gladstone where the treatment plant once stood lies the portal to the American Tunnel, which was sealed starting in the late 1990s by a series of three bulkheads.
It was hoped the bulkheads would limit discharge of contaminated water from the mine, and for a time, that appeared to be the case.
A problem develops
“About four years ago we realized we had a problem we hadn’t anticipated — discharge from other openings,” Simon said.
Steve Fearn, a Silverton mining engineer, suggested that the American Tunnel had effectively drained a lot of water from higher elevations, but when it was sealed, it allowed water to start recharging.
Soon, water was coming out of other mines in the same area, linked to the tunnel by various fractures in the rock.
“No one anticipated the amount of water coming from the Gold King and the Red and Bonita,” Fearn said.
Now, about 250 gallons per minute are gushing from the Gold King Mine opening above the tunnel. The Mogul and the Red and Bonita mines are also showing increases in discharge as water has risen some 1,000 feet above the American Tunnel level after the bulkheads were put in there.
Peter Butler of Durango, a member of the stakeholders group, said that now some 600 gallons per minute are coming from various sites above the American Tunnel.
“It’s the biggest (metals) loading area in the basin,” Butler said. “It’s an area we’d really like to do something with.”
But exactly how to deal with the problem is still up in the air, and may involve a combination of more bulkheads and testing various treatment options.
“What we’d like to do is develop a demonstration plant for pilot studies,” Simon said.
He said the water treatment facility could use different technologies to “see which ones are effective, and what the costs are.”
And Simon said if a method is found to be successful, it could be expanded and left as a permanent asset on Cement Creek.
“We’re looking at all and any possibilities at this point,” Simon said. “We need to make some technological breakthroughs.”
Who will pay for it?
One looming issue is exactly how such a treatment facility would be financed.
“I think we have people willing to step up and help us with that, including the EPA, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and USGS (U.S. Geological Survey).”
Simon said that of the hundreds of abandoned mines in the Animas drainage, some 34 of them account for about 90 percent of the metals loading. He estimated some 400 pounds of zinc per day are being poured into the drainage. Much of that was previously being taken out by the treatment plant at Gladstone.
Simon says he sees the proposed pilot treatment facility at Gladstone to be the best option to address the problem.
Such a system, he said, “would bring in different technologies at a pilot level and see how they do.”
He said the rest of the nation could then “capitalize on our experience.”
“Is it pie in the sky? Yeah, but there’s not a lot of options and there’s no one else doing it,” Simon said.
Fearn noted that such a treatment plant would still leave vast amounts of sludge to be dealt with.
“There’s got to be a better way than creating millions of pounds of sludge,” Fearn said.
Simon noted that the EPA is also considering installing more bulkheads to plug mines as an alternative to water treatment.
He cautioned that given the unexpected consequences from previous efforts, more research may be in order.
“We need more information to make a decision that is correct,” Simon said. “The problem is big, complex, and complicated.”
Simon said that dealing with such water-quality issues is a relatively new process.
“We’re just in the initial stages and need to spend some time to figure out where we’re at.”
At the Red and Bonita
Stopping at the Red and Bonita Mine north of Gladstone, the group surveyed the scene — a steady flow gushing from the mine opening and spilling over a pile of mine waste into Cement Creek.
Upstream from the mine site, the creek appears relatively clear, but below the abandoned mine, rocks have been painted red by the exposure to metals.
Kay Zillich, who has surveyed many mine sites in the region for the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, said the mine opening “was essentially dry” prior to the installation of the bulkheads in the American Tunnel far below.
Zillich pointed to a wetland below the mine that appeared devoid of vegetation.
“Plugging the Bonita may reinvigorate that fen and also help with natural treatment,” by forcing water from the mine to filter through more rock and soils.
Steve Way, of the EPA Response Program in Denver, said the agency plans to do some test drilling at the Bonita site later this year to see if putting a bulkhead in the mine opening makes sense.
“The rock may be too fractured to support a bulkhead,” Way said.
The agency is also looking at the feasibility of controlling the flow from the mine to deliver it to a treatment system.
“It’s the magnitude of the water flowing from the Gold King and the Red and Bonita that’s the real issue,” Fearn said. “And the water quality is very poor.”
Fearn said he’d like to see some immediate steps taken to improve water quality while working toward more permanent solutions.
“Our focus at the Animas River Stakeholders Group has always been to improve water quality,” Fearn said. “We’re not interested in trying to establish who is at fault.”