What Lies Beneath

The effort to reclaim a historic mining district has consumed years and millions of dollars. But will it hold water?

Last year, after a series of financial and legal setbacks, the water-treatment plant at the American Tunnel was shut down. Since last fall, acidic, zinc-laden water from the American Tunnel has flowed untreated into Cement Creek, which joins up with the Animas River at Silverton. (The Animas, which supports a trophy brown trout fishery, heads south through Durango and joins the San Juan River in New Mexico.)

Regulators say the discharge accounts for only 5 percent of the mine pollution pouring into Cement Creek, a highly mineralized stream that winds past scores of abandoned mines in the district. They insist that, whatever problems remain, the Sunnyside deal has had a positive impact on water quality in the Upper Animas watershed.

"The water quality in Cement Creek has always been very squirrelly," says Sarah Johnson, WQCD's assessment-unit manager. "There's a lot of chemistry in that creek we don't understand. There is this confounding problem that there are diffuse sources of zinc in the watershed. It doesn't mean this isn't a problem; it just confounds the problem."

Until last year, water from the American Tunnel was 
treated in settling ponds on Todd Hennis's land.
Jonathan Thompson
Until last year, water from the American Tunnel was treated in settling ponds on Todd Hennis's land.

"Protracted" negotiations with Sunnyside produced the best possible settlement, Johnson says. She defends the state's decision not to oppose the release of a $5 million bond to Sunnyside, on the grounds that it had demonstrably improved water quality at a testing point on the Animas below Silverton.

"There were tremendous numbers of unknowns," she says. "We did the best we could, knowing the risk. Is the Animas River better off? That's the question. The numbers we see down below Silverton are looking pretty good."

Hennis isn't so sure. In his view, Sunnyside got off cheaply, and a mile-wide loophole in the law allowed a major foreign corporation -- Sunnyside's parent company was acquired two years ago by Canadian mining giant Kinross Gold -- to walk away from its long-term obligations, leaving a local "straw operator" to take the fall. The entire episode, he says, has been an exercise in regulatory inertia, as well as a lesson in the perplexing hydrological questions that bedevil mine cleanup efforts.

"Unfortunately, the regulators sold out almost all of our rights with this series of deals," he says. "Instead of following the law, they threatened me with enforcement action. They forced me into doing their jobs, to some extent. The state has been completely gutless."

Hennis thinks it's too early to declare the Sunnyside settlement a success, given the problems with the water-treatment plant and the unexplained flows from surrounding mines. "The worst-case scenario is that further leaks develop from the Sunnyside mine pool," he says. "The state's position is that these mines fluctuate in their flow and it's all natural. But what if the mine pool sprouts a dozen leaks, going into different parts of the Animas drainage, with no way to treat it? It could take five or six years for changes in the water quality to show up."

There are roughly half a million abandoned mine sites across the western United States, including more than 23,000 in Colorado. The state doesn't have the resources to monitor the mines, and the extent of the water pollution caused by them is impossible to gauge. Some may represent only minor disturbances in the way groundwater deals with local minerals, but others have clearly caused major disruptions, exposing waterways to runoff from a highly acidic brew of tailings, mine dumps and metal ore.

Discovered in 1873, the Sunnyside was one of the earliest and richest strikes in southwestern Colorado, and it endured longer than most. Besides gold, the mine produced silver, lead, copper and zinc with few interruptions until the Depression, then came back online with new technology in the latter half of the twentieth century. But tougher environmental laws and a few blunders of a hydrological nature made the Sunnyside an increasingly costly proposition.

In 1973, melting snowpack caused a breach in a tailings pond, sending thousands of tons of tailings into the Animas watershed. In 1978, a crew exploring a promising vein of gold drilled a borehole too close to the ancient glacial waters sitting on top of the mine. Lake Emma burst into the mine, flooding the workings with water and a million tons of mud, and pummeling a twenty-ton locomotive into scrap. The American Tunnel turned into a geyser, spouting water more than a hundred feet into the air. All that was left of Lake Emma was a crater the length of three football fields. Fortunately, no one was killed; the lake broke through on a Sunday afternoon, when mine crews were at home.

Standard Metals, Sunnyside's operator at the time, never recovered from the multimillion-dollar cleanup bill. In 1985, Echo Bay, a Canadian mining company, took over the mine for $20 million. Six years later, Sunnyside was shut down for good.

The mine closure had a devastating effect on San Juan County, the least populous county in the state. "We lost half our population," recalls Beverly Rich, the county treasurer and chairwoman of the San Juan County Historical Society. "We went from about 200 children to 43 kids in our school. We lost one-third of our county tax revenue. We lost a lot of our volunteer firemen -- and good-paying jobs. Mining pays well, and tourism jobs don't quite cut the mustard."

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