Abandoned mines are prolific across the West reminding us almost daily of the remaining legacy of the boom-bust mining exploration of the 1800s. The settlement of the West was brokered by the promise of gold and silver, leaving behind a legacy of toxic water and contaminated lands.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas River near Silverton, the Gold King Mine incident brought renewed attention to legacy mining and acid mine drainage, involving two rivers in three states affecting thousands of residents and three tribes.
Over 11,000 abandoned mines are scattered across Colorado, with over 50,000 across the Rocky Mountain West. This problem that extends around the world is facing increasing scrutiny due to its significant impacts on water quality and adverse effects on the economies and health of downstream communities.
Treating Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) for the removal of metals is a challenging and expensive process. It is well known that the existing best available technologies, such as lime-driven mine water treatment plants, have significant capital/ annual costs and large carbon footprint that create difficult capitol, operational, and maintenance requirements for both the short and the long term. Cost challenges are further magnified for abandoned sites and those with nonexistent and/or minimally capable potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to help pay for treatment.
Using current best practices, a treatment plant for one draining mine like the Gold King can cost $1 million annually. Ongoing efforts to address these challenges have focused on singular, isolated improvements—water treatment, waste management, and policy reform. And yet, no initiative embraces a systems approach that combines needed policy reforms, emerging technologies, business and market strategies, and public and environmental perspectives.
Cutting edge efforts to address this challenge have, in isolation, focused on a myriad of emerging alternative technologies, but these efforts regularly fail to reach full-scale commercialization. Innovators are impeded by: lack of funding; limited or no access to field sites; expensive laboratory costs; liability and permitting issues; and lack of technical support to advance methods from bench test to full-scale verification and commercialization. No initiative or facility currently embraces an integrated approach that combines a field test facility, technical support and evaluation, business and market strategies, and needed liability protections to accelerate the development process.
We need a new model – one that recognizes the strong interconnections between Western communities, environment, economic opportunities, legal liabilities, and the need for a complex, technological solution.
There is a significant and outstanding need for innovative, lasting solutions that improve water quality, empower communities, and strengthen rural interests in conserving our natural resources. To truly solve the AMD problem, the world needs a new technology that is affordable, sustainable, scalable, reliable, and that not only removes toxic metals, but recovers a marketable product to offset costs.
In response to the Gold King Mine spill of 2015, the Bonita Peak Mining District (BPMD) outside of Silverton, Colorado was designated as a Superfund Site with the support of the community, the State of Colorado and other stakeholders.
Gov. John Hickenlooper stated in a letter to the EPA in 2016 that he would support adding the BPMD to the National Priorities List, with the caveat urging EPA to make its best efforts to support the local economy of Silverton and San Juan County. He encouraged EPA to maximize local contractors and job opportunities related to the Superfund investigation, design and remediation.
In addition to the Governor’s request, the Town of Silverton Trustees and San Juan County Commissioners made a request for assurances that EPA and the State of Colorado would involve the Town and County, and the vast knowledge of local experts in decision-making throughout the Superfund process.
Town and County officials also asked the EPA to use its best efforts to use the BPMD as a study site for new and alternative technologies, approaches and remedies to acid mine drainage, and to use expertise of academia and industry in the science of hydrology, geology, and other relevant fields.
MSI has offered to help Silverton and San Juan County to lead the development of a center of excellence for addressing abandoned and draining mines. MSI has been on the forefront of that research, data collection, community outreach and economic development in Silverton and San Juan County since 2002.
MSI has supported the local economy by employing four fulltime residents of Silverton, and by hosting three Silverton Innovation Expo events which have secured industry, experts, academia, and regulators support of the concept.
San Juan County is facing a severe economic crisis with the onset on SARS CoV-2 which has halted the tourism industry, the primary economic driver of the community. MSI recognizes that it will take a collaborative effort of multiple stakeholders in San Juan County to diversify revenue streams to strengthen the livelihood of residents and businesses in the community, and we are proposing a contribution to the community through our own fundraising efforts.
We feel that we can provide a new avenue of development in concert with the County’s efforts to strengthen revenue streams by forging ahead with a unique and flexible initiative that will bring an entirely new demographic to Silverton through education and innovation.
• MSI has developed a strong network of new and emerging entrepreneurs who want to bring their technologies to San Juan County and the region for testing through partnerships and the past three Innovation Expos. MSI facilitates many businesses, university researchers, graduate students, and student groups who come to San Juan County to conduct research and test emerging technologies in the district. To encourage networking and help advance progress in technology innovation year round, MSI is developing a new newsletter and network to provide industry updates and opportunities for sharing good news and innovation progress.
Mining Conference set for Sept. 21-24
• San Juan Mining and Reclamation Conference (SJMRC) has pivoted to embrace a blended model Sept. 21-24, combining virtual presentations through an online format with a smaller, live broadcast.
We will add local, in-person events in the Telluride/Ouray area as options for travel and gathering evolve. Please visit MSI’s website at www.mountainstudies.org/sjmrc for more details, including sponsorship information and Call for Abstracts.
• The Innovation Expo will evolve this year, and focus on supporting businesses who are advancing new technology through a new Mining Solutions Bootcamp, as a partnership with MSI, Telluride Venture Accelerator and Newmont. Additional partners and investors are welcome.
Ideally, the Bootcamp will invite 3-10 businesses to participate in a 7-day intensive business bootcamp to be based in Silverton and Telluride. Due to the challenges of COVID-19, the Bootcamp is continuing to evaluate options for in-person and/or virtual options.
We anticipate program decisions will be made by May 31. The signature event of the Bootcamp will be a Pitch Night as one of the SJMRC Happy Hour events. Stay tuned for more details.
• MSI staff and Board have drafted a Business Model Canvas that explores the unique business model streams for: a facility, an accelerator, and an education program.
• After drafting an initial pro forma to explore potential income and expenses, MSI has circulated an RFQ for consulting firms to assist in completing the design and exploration process to the next level of resolution.
• Expo technologies and projects have reported significant advances from their engagement at the Innovation Expo.
• Congratulate Ryan Bennett on successful completion of the removal action at the Ben Franklin mine site, and completion of the Administrative consent process! This was finished last fall, and was featured as a tour during the Expo.
• Bob Hedin of Hedin Environmental in Pennsylvania received a Small Business Innovation Research Grant to refine their concept of regarding carbonation of mine water to increase alkalinity generation by limestone.
• Tahne Corcutt, Beer-to-Clear Initiative is partnering with Linken Environmental and Ouray Silver Mines to test the potential for spent grain from beer making to be used in improving soil remediation. They anticipate the results from their initial tests this spring.
• Chuck Wages with GC Solutions has partnered with two mining companies to test his Amogel product with mine water from several sites.
We continue to work through the Feasibility Process to understand our four grand challenges to determine if there is a pathway forward for: technology, liability, access, social license, and funding.
Clearly, COVID-19 will affect every aspect of American life, and all of our efforts to find a better solution for legacy mine sites. We will continue to adjust and adapt as we learn more. While the pandemic may have made the road longer, we are even more certain that a solution is necessary, and that the economic impact of a center in Silverton is needed.
Michelle Furi is deputy director of operations for Mountain Studies Institute.