What Lies Beneath

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

It was around this time that Todd Hennis set his sights on the Mogul. Hennis had grown up in Ohio coal country and had a fascination with metallurgy and mining lore. He wrote his thesis at Harvard on Australian iron-ore agreements, then became a metals trader in the commodity-crazed 1980s -- when everyone, it seemed, was going into geology or speculating in precious metals. The companies he worked for were buying entire mine productions from Peru or Australia or Canada and shipping them to smelters in Japan or Europe, riding the intricate vibrations of supply and demand.

Bitten by the mining bug, Hennis moved to Grand Junction and began making trips to Silverton, exploring the local history and assessing the aftermath of the Sunnyside shutdown. "Everybody thought Silverton was going to dry up and blow away," he says. "You could buy a house for $25,000."

Defunct mines in the area were available for a price that amounted to clearing the tax liens. Hennis saw an opportunity in the Mogul, a much smaller mine than the Sunnyside, but large by local standards, with 20,000 feet of workings and much untapped ore. He began making inquiries.

Up zinc creek: Since last fall, Gold King has 
discharged acidic mine water directly into Cement 
Jonathan Thompson
Up zinc creek: Since last fall, Gold King has discharged acidic mine water directly into Cement Creek.

"If I had it to do all over again, I never would have gone within a million miles of it," he says now. "It's been interesting, but when you talk about an industry that will kick your behind on a regular basis, that's the mining business."

Hennis had barely started in the business when he learned of the increased discharge coming out of the Mogul. Under pressure from state regulators to fix the problem, he began to look into the possibility that the new flow was coming from the mine pool that had been created by sealing the Sunnyside. Official maps of the mining operations showed that the underground workings of the two mines were connected at one level. Analysis of the new flow showed that it contained a high amount of fluorine, and a United States Geological Survey official told Hennis that the most likely source for the distinctive fluorine "tag" was the mine pool itself.

Even more persuasive, in his view, were the documents that Hennis came across as he traced the history of the settlement agreement between the state and Sunnyside. One 1995 memo to WQCD officials, which Hennis calls the "smoking gun," lays out Sunnyside's calculations of the risks involved in plugging its mine:

"Limited quantities of water may escape through the Brenneman Vein after filling the mine pool. The mitigation proposed for this settlement is intended to mitigate effects of this eventuality, if it should occur."

The Brenneman Vein was a direct path from the Sunnyside to the Mogul. A Sunnyside consultant's modeling of possible results predicted that if the mine pool found a "preferential path" along that course, it would discharge from the Mogul at a rate of 160 gallons per minute within months of the bulkheading. And that, Hennis claims, is precisely what happened. "They hit the mark on this perfectly," he says.

But Sunnyside officials didn't agree with Hennis's conclusions. They claimed that the mine pool never reached the level that connects their mine to the Mogul -- although since the bulkheading, precise calculations of the pool's dimensions or toxicity have become impossible. And they suggested that the increased flows at other mines might simply be a sign that the area's "natural" hydrological system has been restored.

Larry Perino, Sunnyside Gold's reclamation manager, likens the situation to plugging a drain; water that would have previously flowed out of the American Tunnel now goes elsewhere, but that doesn't mean the mine pool is leaking. "One of the scenarios is that their water was being treated by us and no longer is," he says. "The water is probably going where it used to go."

State regulators have taken no official position on the origin of the increased flows at the Mogul and other mines in the area; cases of alleged "water trespass" are a civil matter, they note. But they also say they anticipated that the creation of the mine pool would alter the hydrology of the mountain. "When you put the plug back in, you're trying to re-establish that groundwater regime, so springs and seeps that might have been drained start flowing again," says Bruce Humphries, minerals program supervisor for the Division of Minerals and Geology. "That's expected."

Also skeptical of Hennis's claims are members of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a coalition of local, state and federal agencies, mining companies and others interested in protecting and improving the watershed. "After the Sunnyside bulkheads were put in, both the Mogul and the Gold King mines started discharging more water," notes Bill Simon, the group's coordinator. "But it would be silly to say that's from the mine pool. We don't know that."

Sunnyside Gold is a member of the stakeholders' group, and Simon says the company has been "a great cooperator in the basin with respect to environmental cleanup." But he also acknowledges that other stakeholders had concerns about many aspects of the deal that the company reached with the state -- including Sunnyside's assurances that bulkheading would eliminate the flow from the American Tunnel. His group has been involved in sealing other mines, Simon says, and there's always some seepage from fractures around the sealed portals.

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