Region: Mine waste spill that occurred in 1989 still impacting the Eagle River
The mine through time
1879: Mining for lead, zinc and other metals begins at the Belden, Black Iron and Little Chief mines.
1905: A mill to separate ore was built at Gilman. The mine was once the largest producer of lead and zinc in Colorado.
1984: The mine operators walk away from the site, allowing the mine works to flood.
1989—90: Contaminated water from the mine turns the Eagle River orange.
2012: A 428,000-gallon spill temporarily discolors the Eagle River.
MINTURN — For longtime valley residents, the recent mine waste spill into the Animas River near Durango prompted memories of the winter of 1989-90, when the Eagle River through Minturn ran a dull, depressing orange. Its clarity today is thanks to constant work.
The Eagle Mine — located in a tight valley between Minturn and Red Cliff — closed in 1984. After the mine closed, countless gallons of water flooded the mine works and, five years later, into the river, turning the stream orange. Locals were aghast, of course.
When the river ran orange, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had already added the mine to its “Superfund” list for closely monitored cleanup, but the extent of the problem was still being determined.
While the river today looks normal — with the exception of some of the orange-tinged boulders in the river — the cleanup continues and will into the foreseeable future.
The “responsible party” for the mine cleanup is CBS, which acquired the mine when it bought Viacom, the previous responsible party. The mine ended up in the hands of those media companies via previous acquisitions and mergers. Today, CBS still pays for much of the work, and will essentially forever. The state and federal governments are also involved.
Because water continues to seep into the mine works — a vast underground network of caverns and tunnels — contaminated water is piped out of the mine and treated at a site at Maloit Park in Minturn. About 250 gallons of water per minute comes out of the mine and is pumped into a facility that allows heavy metals to settle out. About 250 pounds of metallic sludge per day comes out the water.
The Eagle River Watershed Council was created out of that environmental disaster. The group, which today looks at the entire length of the river, remains intimately involved in the continuing work at the mine.
“There’s been a lot of progress,” council director Holly Loff said. “But there could always be more.”
The biggest issue today is the age of the equipment, particularly the pipelines carrying contaminated water to the treatment plant. That pipeline, which is above ground in a harsh winter environment, sprung a handful of notable leaks a few years ago. One, in 2009, turned the river orange again for a brief period. Another, bigger spill in 2012 put 428,000 gallons of contaminated water into the river, turning it green.
When word came about those spills, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District shut off the intake to its Avon water treatment plant.
The district’s Todd Fessenden, who is in charge of drinking water treatment and supplies, said the Avon plant was built to accommodate and treat the metals in the river, but not in the concentrations seen when there’s a spill. That’s why the intakes were shut down.
Given the complexity of the mine’s treatment system, Loff said it’s important to have more and better monitoring on the pipeline and pumps, since humans can’t have their eyes on the system all the time.
“They’re moving toward real-time remote monitoring,” Loff said.
Eagle River Water and Sanitation District community affairs director Diane Johnson said the district uses remote monitors at many of its facilities, and they work well. One monitor, in a remote area without cell phone service, is linked to a satellite.
At the moment, though, sometimes the district gets some notifications the old-fashioned way — someone in town will notice something about the river and make a call.
The river these days has better aquatic life — the original contamination killed most of the fish and many of the bugs they feed on. Loff said the river’s brown trout population isn’t exactly thriving, but there are fish. The rainbow trout population isn’t as healthy, and a smaller fish called the sculpin is still in short supply.
“The good news is you can’t catch a fish with a magnet any more,” Minturn Town Council member Earle Bidez said jokingly. Bidez lived in town during the orange-water days, and said the river is a much better place today.
That’s due to both the cleanup and other efforts to restore the stream tract.
“It’s a lot nicer to look at today,” Bidez said. “I’m glad we’ve been able to bring it back somewhat.”
But keeping the river even in its current state requires both hard work and vigilance.
“The important thing is that the community stays engaged, and makes sure the river remains a high priority,” Fessenden said. Since state and federal projects are spread out Fessenden said it’s important that communities have “squeaky wheels” to call attention to cleanup projects.
“We’ve been a squeaky wheel,” Fessenden said. “We’re the water provider here.”
The people contacted for this story all said they hope the Animas River can become another success story, even if the cleanup takes time.
“I feel for Durango and all the towns downstream,” Bidez said. “I sure hope they can restore the thing.”
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