Enemy Mine

Old mines are polluting the water, but this mountain town doesn't want to get shafted by the EPA.


People have been complaining about contaminated water in Left Hand Canyon since the early mining days; in the 1860s, farmers who relied on Left Hand Creek noticed murky water that was likely the result of mine tailings from the Big Five Mill near Ward, another old mining town west of Boulder, and in 1906, the issue of polluted creek water came before the county commissioners.

Left Hand Creek is fed by James Creek, which in turn is fed by Little James Creek, which, right now, poses the greatest environmental problem of the three. Located above Jamestown, the Little James is the recipient of acidic and metallic water that runs off the nearby Burlington Mine, where fluorspar was extracted as recently as the 1970s (the mineral was mined for the production of hydrofluoric acid, a corrosive liquid used to etch glass).

All that's left of the Burlington is a giant pit; soft soil caused the mine to collapse in on itself. The shaft is long gone, and the rusty equipment often found at old mine sites has disappeared. Down a steep incline from the mine is a stagnant pond where contaminated groundwater has seeped up. The pond changes color depending on the concentration of metals in the water; on some days it's a gooey green, on others it's a deep orange.

High levels of arsenic, beryllium, copper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc, all products of the mine, have been found in the Little James, which is devoid of life. By the time the Little James meets James Creek about a mile away in town, most of the metals have settled out, and James Creek isn't currently considered a health hazard to fish. (Jamestown residents get their drinking water from wells or other creeks.) By the time the James meets Left Hand Creek further down the canyon, the water is even cleaner, but before the confluence of the two, Left Hand Creek, whose headwaters are located near the Captain Jack Mill southeast of Ward, receives polluted runoff from that mill as well as from the Big Five.

The EPA first got involved in Left Hand Canyon in the mid-1980s, when the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) reported the owners of the Captain Jack Mill, which had started processing ores from nearby mines in the late '70s or early '80s; MSHA had discovered that the mill operators were improperly storing drums of cyanide, acid and other chemicals. The EPA answered this complaint by sending an emergency-response team up the small valley and removing the drums. It then began testing Left Hand Creek.

In October 1992, the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Division received reports that the mill was now dumping waste directly into the creek; that same month, a Boulder County Health Department official noticed a milky substance in the water and alerted the EPA. "Tailings-like material was observed entering Left Hand Creek from the unlined tailings pond, turning Left Hand Creek a milky gray color for approximately six miles downstream," the official's report read; water samples turned up high levels of zinc, cadmium, copper and lead.

The Left Hand Water District, which treats the creek water for residents in rural Boulder County, Weld County and the southern part of Longmont, had to shut off its intake valve while the EPA cleaned up. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued the mill operator a cease-and-desist order and later shut down the mill for good. The EPA continued testing Left Hand Creek over the next few years, and in the mid-'90s, it began analyzing Little James and James Creeks as well (the state health department had started sampling those two creeks even earlier).

As the population that relies on Left Hand Creek for drinking water grew rapidly over the next decade, the EPA determined that even though there was no immediate threat to the water supply, it might someday become contaminated if nothing was done to clean up the abandoned mines (the number of water users is expected to double to 28,000 over the next twenty years). In the event of a flood, the tailings that have accumulated along the creek beds could erode into the water and taint the drinking supply, not to mention the groundwater used for wells.

David Williams, NPL coordinator for EPA Region 8, which includes Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and the Dakotas, says his agency is now trying to determine who's responsible for the pollution. But it appears that most of the mine operators have either gone out of business or left the state.

The United States Forest Service, which owns the land underneath the Golden Age Mine, has agreed to pay for its clean up, however, and Boulder County, which bought the Argo Mine to preserve as open space last fall, may have to pitch in, too, Williams says. At a recent community meeting in Jamestown, it was announced that Honeywell Inc. is interested in voluntarily cleaning up the Burlington Mine, which it owns through a merger with AlliedSignal Inc., (formerly Allied Chemical), the company that once operated the Burlington Mine.

But Williams says he won't know the full extent of the former mining and milling operators' culpability or how much, if anything, they'll have to pay, until the EPA has done a lot more investigating. And that, like many of the other details of cleaning up contamination, won't get done until after the sites around Jamestown have been placed on the NPL.

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