Colorado Is Cleaning Up Its Toxic Mining Legacy, One Creek At A Time

Aug 27, 2015

Carol and John Wagner’s ranch is surrounded by green pastures, with spectacular views of the northern San Juan mountains. The Wagners moved here from Pennsylvania in 1986, to raise cattle. When they first arrived, Carol said they wondered what was wrong with the creek that meandered through their property.

“Nothing could live in it,” she recalled. Grass didn’t grow along its banks, and there were no fish or bugs.

That creek, called Kerber Creek, is just a small piece of the legacy left by hard rock mining across the West. When Tang-colored water spilled from a mine into the Animas River, it caught the nation’s attention. Yet unknown to most, there are people who work day in and day out cleaning up the many hundreds of abandoned mine sites across Colorado. This sort of mine cleanup work is a never-ending process, fraught with logistical challenges, financing problems, even the looming threat of lawsuits.

To understand what killed Kerber Creek, it’s helpful to drive 15 miles above Wagner’s ranch, into the mountains where miners tunneled and blasted searching for gold, silver, and copper over 100 years ago. You’ll pass hillsides bored through with abandoned mine tunnels. Old mine structures, like the Cocomongo Mill and mine, and piles of rocky waste dot the landscape.

Carol and John Wagner on the deck overlooking their ranch. When they moved here in 1986, they didn't know why the creek running through the ranch was dead.
Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

Operations at Cocomongo ended in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The mill is giant. The piles of mine waste around it are equally impressive.

Much of mine waste is referred to as tailings, pea-sized rocks that were processed by miners. That, along with larger waste -- stained yellow, orange, white, gray, brown -- reaches many stories high. It almost looks like the mountain was turned inside out. Jason Willis, who works with the conservation group Trout Unlimited on mine cleanups across Colorado points out that these rocks are full of heavy metals.

“You could probably have zinc or copper, arsenic, aluminum, you kind of run the gamut of the abandoned mine lands suite of metals,” said Willis.

An acidic creek and a cleaner creek meet. On the left side where the contaminated creek flows in, nothing grows and the rocks are coated with a blue-white precipitate. On the right, the healthy creek banks are host to green vegetation.
Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

Those same metals are what killed the stream on Carol Wagner’s ranch. They were also in the water that flowed from the Gold King Mine above the Animas River in Durango, staining it orange for days. The Environmental Protection Agency was working to cut down on the flow of polluted water at its source. A similar effort took place a few miles over from Cocomongo, at the Rawley 12 mine tunnel, beginning in the early 1990s.

Laura Archuleta, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is all business when it comes to mine cleanups, but she also shows the patience and sense of humor necessary to get through such large, long term projects. She smiles while telling a tale of an excavator that got stuck in quicksand-like tailings.

“They got it out eventually,” Archuleta recalled.

The Rawley 12 tunnel and rehabilitation site once gushed orange, acidic water into Squirrel Creek, then down into Kerber Creek. The tailings below were difficult enough to walk on that some workers used snowshoes so they wouldn’t sink in. 

It took hundreds of dump trucks to remove the tailings mess. The Fish and Wildlife Service, working in conjunction with a couple handfuls of state, local and federal agencies, had to build a holding pond to store and treat the mine wastewater as they worked. Workers also had to rebuild part of the mine tunnel here before they could plug it. It's hard, expensive work.

“Sometimes mine restoration looks a lot like mining,” Archuleta said, showing off a picture of workers in hard hats and head lamps.

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Today, the tailings have been trucked away and safely stored. Native grasses and plants have sprouted, and tiny evergreens are beginning to colonize the bare soil. Archuleta points to the ground.

“Dandelions are growing here, dandelions are actually a good sign because they will not grow in metals enriched soils.”

All this had to be done before any restoration could happen lower down, at the creek running through the Wagner's ranch. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service started a cleanup at the ranch, and Jason Willis and Trout Unlimited, along with numerous partners, have continued that work, applying for state and federal grants to fund it.

Finding that money is an ongoing problem for these large scale cleanups. One solution could be requiring existing mines on public lands to pay royalties, said University of Colorado law professor Mark Squillace.

“You could easily impose a fee on the tonnage that is produced from these mines to fund a program to reclaim hardrock mines.”

That would take legislation, though, which is unlikely, said Squillace.

Liability is another issue, since groups that take on big cleanups can be sued if they can’t bring a creek up to Clean Water Act standards. That limits groups like Trout Unlimited's ability to take on certain types of cleanups. So-called “Good Samaritan” legislation to address these problems has been proposed, including by former Colorado senator Mark Udall, but has failed to pass.

The highly visible spill on the Animas River has led to renewed calls to update these laws. Those involved say Good Samaritan legislation could be hard to get right, for a couple of reasons. First, changes to the law would need to ensure it didn’t over protect mining companies who could reopen mines, make money, and then hide behind Good Samaritan liability protections. Second, because it involves opening up the Clean Water Act for modification, some on the environmental side are worried the law could be weakened through the amendment process.

An excavator moves dirt and rocks as part of the rehabilitation of Kerber Creek.

Back at the Wagner ranch, an excavator clangs as it lifts giant boulders and places them in the creek, stabilizing the bed and preventing erosion. That heavy equipment will also till in lime to neutralize the soil, and compost to help plants grow. Since the rehabilitation work began, Carol Wagner said she’s seen a huge difference.

“And now there’s trout living here in the creek and a lot of wildlife are here, and it’s just changed everything,” she said.

That cleanup has been decades in the making. For Colorado to deal with its abandoned mine problem, this work has to happen over and over, in various iterations and circumstances. The state Division of Mining Reclamation and Safety estimates out of the 22,000 abandoned mines across the state, 500 of them are currently polluting the water down below. It will take decades to address the problem, one mine tunnel and creek at a time.