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What Lies Beneath

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


According to a Sunnyside Gold report, the company has spent around $25 million in costs associated with closing the mine and related cleanup projects since 1991. That's more than its parent company, Echo Bay, ever saw in profits from the gold taken from the mine.

As part of the consent decree in the court case, Sunnyside removed mine tailings and took on reclamation tasks at several other old mine sites in the area. The result has been some improvement in water quality for tributaries feeding into the Animas, especially Mineral Creek, and consistently better-than-predicted water quality for the Animas below Silverton, with average zinc and acidity levels lower than they were six years ago.

 
 
Oh, sludge: Todd Hennis suffered a "near-fatal" in the 
Mogul.
Anthony Camera
Oh, sludge: Todd Hennis suffered a "near-fatal" in the Mogul.

"The whole consent decree was based on a basin-wide approach to water quality," says Sunnyside's Perino, "and I think that's been fairly successful. If you look at the total reduction in metal-loading, there's been quite a bit of success."

"We're moving forward pretty well," agrees Simon of the stakeholders' group. "Throughout the Animas, we're seeing increased fish population. Trout are reproducing on their own in the stream, and that's a good indication that things are improving."

Up on Cement Creek, though, the picture is more confusing, with reams of conflicting data and puzzling spikes in metal-loading. Readings from last March indicate that the amount of zinc in the creek is almost three times higher than it was three years ago. This spring was wetter than usual in the San Juans, and the heavy runoff may be scouring salts from mines that were dry before, but firm conclusions are hard to come by.

State regulators also don't have much current data on how sealing the Sunnyside has affected flows from nearby mines. Last October, a Division of Minerals and Geology official asked Sunnyside for information on that point; the company has not responded. But while the division would like some answers, particularly regarding the mine pool's impact on the "general hydrologic balance" of the area, the inquiry isn't an urgent one. "Even though we want Sunnyside to address the flow issue, at this point we don't see it as having a significant impact on water quality," Humphries says.

Two years ago, Sunnyside sought to have fourteen acres of un-reclaimed land around the American Tunnel reclassified as an "industrial site" and have its reclamation permit transferred to Gold King Mines. Hennis fought both maneuvers, arguing that the proposal would allow Sunnyside to walk away from a blighted area. He also discovered that part of the land in question belonged to others, including the federal Bureau of Land Management, which was interested in restoring its portion to rangeland. Although the state initially failed to notify the BLM of the proposal, the bureau ultimately objected to the change, and it was denied.

The BLM has since taken a greater interest in the future of the site, providing a grant to San Juan County to explore the legal aspects of operating another water-treatment plant on Cement Creek. The Animas stakeholders' group is keenly interested in the project, and the EPA is providing some technical expertise. "We'd like to get a plant back in operation," says Simon, "not only to treat the American Tunnel flow, but other loaders."

Such a plant could cost anywhere from several hundred thousand to several million dollars to build. Hennis doesn't think the public should have to foot the bill. The rationale for Colorado's supposedly tough reclamation laws and bonding requirements, he notes, is to avoid another bailout like Summitville, the 1992 mine disaster that poisoned the Alamosa River and saddled taxpayers with an estimated $150 million in cleanup costs when the mine's owner, Galactic Resources, declared bankruptcy.

"The days of the rape-and-run miners are over," Hennis says. "Especially the Canadian companies like Galactic, that felt they could come to Colorado, mine, and leave the whole mess for others to clean up. I would like to see Sunnyside's corporate parent step forward and take some responsibility. I think they should contribute heavily to building a water-treatment plant and operating it."

It's too early to say what role, if any, his company might have in a future water-treatment operation, Perino responds. "We have done everything we committed to do," he says. "We're waiting to see what the final steps might be."

Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, says there's a trend in the industry toward "zero-discharge operations," an effort to avoid long-term water-treatment issues such as those in the Eureka District. His group is seeking "Good Samaritan legislation" that would make it easier for mining companies to voluntarily clean up old abandoned mine sites.

"This is a problem that dates back to the nineteenth century," Sanderson says. "We encourage stewardship that goes beyond what the law requires, but the companies are often reluctant because they don't want to pick up the liability that comes with taking over a site."

Sunnyside is currently reclaiming the settling ponds on the land it traded to Hennis for the Mogul. The property is close to Silverton Mountain, an extreme ski area that's drawing rave reviews as well as increased attention to the old mining district.

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