The Crestone Eagle, November 2005:
The Summitville Mine
Colorado’s worst environmental disaster
by P.J. Smith
The Summitville Mine, 40 miles west of Alamosa, is called Colorado’s worst environmental disaster, and America’s most notorious and costly mine—$210 million to clean up and counting. At 11,500 feet in the San Juan Mountains, surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest, the 1,235 acre open-pit cyanide leach gold and silver mine sits at the headwaters of the Alamosa River. Mine operations in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s unleashed millions of gallons of toxic, acidic, and highly-mineralized water into the underground aquifer and downstream watershed.
In late September, I joined a dozen or so other interested local citizens in the annual public tour of Summitville. Our host was Derek Boer, community involvement and public information specialist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), co-lead agency on the mine clean-up, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
As we drove up the mountain, we admired the golden aspens and, at an open turnout near the top, stopped for our first full view of the mine. The descriptions and the pictures I’d found in my research hadn’t prepared me for the huge open brown gash in the landscape.
One of our group, MonteVista councilman Charles Spielman, had visited the site in the 1980s while working in mine operations for Gulf Oil. He told us that Summitville was “. . . the worst conceived, worst operated, and worst designed mine in the history of mining.”
Our next stop was the Summitville Dam Impoundment (SDI), a 90-million gallon holding pond for pre-treated water, and the water treatment plant (WTP) at its southern end. The SDI’s banks were stained crimson from the water’s high iron content. Water level was at its lowest of the year, which is usual in fall, but when the mine was opened up last winter, it was “. . . only 6 inches from the top,” a worker later told me.
At the main site area, we met representatives from CDPHE, EPA, and Golder Associates, a private contractor operating the WTP. A crew of 13 works the site from about February to the end of October.
Our tour group broke up, and I rode out with Austin Buckingham, CDPHE Project Manager. I asked her if Summitville was the biggest mine disaster in the US. “Not really,” Austin replied. “It’s notable, because it operated in the modern era and was permitted when it was assumed there was stewardship of the land. But there was no appropriate oversight.”
In 1991-92, fish and aquatic life disappeared along 17 miles of the Alamosa River. “Everyone suddenly knew about the sleeping giant in the mountain,” explained Austin. I had heard the fish kill was due to a dam overflow or spill. Not so, Austin told me; it was the cumulative effect of years of heavy metal and acid runoff.
Problems along the Alamosa River weren’t unknown. Erosion, straightening, and drought had degraded the river and its banks, and community members had gotten involved in restoration efforts.
**** flows downhill
The Alamosa River headwaters and one of its two main tributaries, Wightman Creek, fall from the San Juans at Summitville. They flow through forest, irrigated cropland, and to Capulin and La Jara, along the way filling the underground aquifer, a reservoir, streams, and domestic wells. Seven miles downstream is the nearest town, Jasper, and 17 miles downstream is Terrace Reservoir, which stores and supplies irrigation water for 45,000 acres of cropland.
These mountain waters traditionally have had a low pH and a high mineral content—as shown in the names of creeks like Alum, Bitter, and Iron. Summitville turned the waters to the pH of vinegar.
Half of Rio Grande county’s economy of farming, ranching, and outdoor recreation depends on the Alamosa River Watershed. It provides drinking water for livestock, and irrigation water for crops. Its streams are favored by fishermen, and its wetlands are habitat for migrating waterfowl, including the endangered whooping crane.
There’s gold in those hills?
Gold was discovered in South Mountain around 1870. At first, it was placer-mined creeks. When gold and silver veins were found in the mountains, miners dug small shallow open pits (‘glory holes’), and tunneled underground, driving shafts and adits (horizontal openings). Summitville was mined off and on from the 1900s up to the 1940s, and some in the 1960s. The ore is low-grade, and a lot of effort is needed to extract a little amount of precious metal.
When metal-bearing rock is broken up and brought out into the open, not only is its surface area greatly increased, but it is also exposed to weathering, which oxidizes and leaches out heavy metals. The area’s volcanic rocks are also high in sulfides, which forms acidity when oxidized. And they don’t have to be exposed to the weather for the process to take place. Oxygen-rich water running through tunnels oxidizes the rocks, discharging acidic, highly-mineralized water.
The mining process liberated tons of heavy metals—aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, and zinc. Humans need trace amounts of some heavy metals, such as copper and manganese, but others have no known benefits and tend to build up in the body.
The mining operator responsible for the majority of the on-going and current problems is the Summitville Consolidated Mining Corporation, Inc. (SCMCI), which worked the site from July 1986 through October 1991. Using the open-pit heap leach pad (HLP) method, SCMCI piled up crushed gold-bearing ore onto a lined pad, then poured a sodium-cyanide solution over it. The cyanide percolated through the ore and leached out gold.
An EPA Superfund Site in the making
Within weeks after start-up, the vinyl liner under the HLP cracked and started leaking cyanide-laced water. There was no place to store or treat it, and SCMCI also wasn’t prepared for the area’s high snowfall, heavy spring melt-off, avalanches, and landslides.
After at least 8 toxic spills in 1987, SCMCI built a water treatment plant in 1989, but it didn’t work properly. In September 1990, the EPA visited the site after several anonymous phone calls, and SCMCI was penalized and paid fines of $130,000. In 1991, the state allowed the discharge of excess water, if it met certain contamination limits. Those limits weren’t met, and SCMCI was served with a Cease and Desist Order. An estimated 85,000 gallons of polluted water had leaked through the HLP’s damaged liner, and SCMCI had agreed to draft a clean up plan and started to clean up by November 1992.
SCMCI halted all clean-up and walked away from the site—defying a state court injunction—on December 15, 1992, when Galactic Resources, its parent company, declared bankruptcy.
On December 16, 1992, an EPA Emergency Response team stepped in. Snowfall was three times the normal amount that winter. The HLP held 1å50-200 million gallons of cyanide leachate, and the containment barrier was around 5 feet from overflowing. Also, 6 sites were leaking 3,000 gallons a minute.
A heap of trouble
The history of Summitville was in my mind as our tour progressed. Our first stop was the HLP in the Cropsey Valley. The EPA’s efforts here came early on, and their goal was to reduce the cyanide. Water was repeatedly injected into the HLP, removed, treated, and re-injected, and the remaining water was treated again and taken off-site. Tons of rinsed rubble were then hauled over and dumped into the North and South Pits. The 90 million gallons of water currently remaining in the HLP is considered “circum-neutral,” Austin told me.
In 1998, the HLP was contoured and capped with clay and geosynthetic material, and neutralized and fortified with tons of lime and organic matter, then re-planted with grasses and trees.
An extensive underground system of storm drains, bulkheads, tunnels, and pipes, and a surface water management system of retention ponds and limestone-lined ditches directs water to the SDI for treatment.
Austin told me that when the EPA took over in 1992, two major adits “…were flowing like rivers.” Both were plugged up with reinforced concrete, but when one leak was stopped, others started somewhere else. It still happens today. Pressure builds up around the plugs and from the massive mountain, and as one site worker later said, they are regularly discovering new seeps and springs.
Up against the wall, and it’s the pits
Our next stop was the High Wall on South Mountain. Here, SCMCI had blasted away the forested hillside into a dusty barren cliff that won’t be coming back to life anytime soon, at least not until a new technology for restoring it is found.
From the base of the High Wall, we looked down into the capped-off rubble-filled North and South Pits, and the Sludge Disposal Area. The sludge (dewatered residue from the WTP) is not considered hazardous waste and will be disposed here as long as water is being treated.
Water, water everywhere
Next, we went to office/lab to hear Jim Hanley, EPA Remedial Project Manager, talk about the need for a new WTP. The current plant, operating 24/7, can’t keep up with the stream burden. A new $16 million WTP was planned to be built in 2005, but it’s not a high-priority budget item for the EPA—they don’t consider Summitville a human health hazard.
Water quality tests in the Terrace Reservoir show that 80 to 99% of the levels of aluminum, copper, iron, and zinc were reduced from 1994-2000. Various locations site and downstream locations are regularly tested. Austin told me that they’ll be treating the water on the site “…indefinitely.”
As we wrapped up our tour and wound our way back down the mountain, I had more questions than answers—and was ready for more research.
Justice is served?
Former President and CEO of Galactic Resources, Robert Friedland, was the subject of a criminal investigation and brought up on charges by the state. In 2000, after 5 years in court, Friedland agreed to pay $27,750,000, with $5 million earmarked as a Natural Resources Damage Settlement (NRDS) to restore the Alamosa River.
State of mining in the State of Colorado
Mining (coal, gold, gypsum, limestone, molybdenum, silver, soda ash, and sodium bicarbonate) contributes $7.4 billion to Colorado’s annual economy. In 2000, hard rock mining was responsible for an estimated 38% of all TRI (Toxic Release Industry) chemicals in the state.
The Summitville disaster brought mining methods to the public eye in the state and across the nation. In 1993, Colorado passed a mining reform bill to strengthen the state’s authority and prevent another Summitville. However, it didn’t address water quality problems or open-pit cyanide mines. One open cyanide pit mine has been licensed by the state and is in operation today. Recent attempts to ban the deadly compound failed.
What will the future bring?
The official reports stated that all aquatic life was destroyed along a 17 mile stretch in 1992. Capulin alfalfa farmer Allan Miller recently told me that he thinks that 55 miles, from the mine site to Highway 285 and maybe even further down, or even as many as 70 miles of the river suffered. Lately, Miller has seen some aquatic life returning around his farm—tadpoles, frogs, salamanders, and bottom-feeding fish. And he’s encouraged, because their return indicates that heavy metals aren’t accumulating at the bottom of his ponds, streams, and ditches.
Miller started and is a board member of the Alamosa River Restoration Project, a grass roots group that drafted The Alamosa River Watershed Master Restoration Plan (March 2005), and will direct funds from the NRDS. The Plan states, “Water quality below Wightman Fork continues to exceed pH, copper, zinc, and aluminum water quality standards.” The EPA estimates that restoring the river will take 100 years.
Also involved in the Restoration Plan and the Alamosa River Keepers is Cindy Medina, who grew up and now lives on the river near La Jara. “As kids, we used to swim in that river,” Medina told me. “My mother used to fish in that river.” Medina first got involved in the ‘90s, when the EPA gave out its initial TAG (Technical Assistance Grant), a requirement for Superfund Sites. “Nobody’s been swimming in the river since Summitville became a Superfund site. So far, there’s not a whole lot of fish,” Medina said. “My private well has a lot of heavy metals. Can I say it’s coming from the river? I think it is, perhaps, but I can’t document it. We all share the aquifer, and the river feeds the aquifer. I don’t drink my water anymore. Over the long-term, it’s been advised not to…”