Silverton

Courtesy of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies

Snowpack in every part of Colorado’s high country is sporting layers of dust, according to a new statewide survey of the state’s winter accumulation.

“This is a low frequency dust season,” wrote Jeff Derry, head of the Colorado Dust on Snow Program, in a post about the survey results. “But may be a high consequence snowmelt season.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has come up with an interim plan to hold back some of the toxic heavy metals that spill into rivers from old southwestern Colorado mining sites.

Luke Runyon / KUNC

A menace lurks beneath the snow high up in the southern Rocky Mountains.

At first glance it seems innocuous, another piece of a dynamic alpine ecosystem, certainly unable to cause the cascade of problems scientists say it could. How could something so simple undermine our water infrastructure, stress wildlife and lengthen the wildfire season all at once?

For most of the winter it stays hidden, buried under blankets of snow. Then, the days grow longer. The sun’s rays begin to melt the top layers, causing water to percolate through the snow and ice or evaporate, revealing the villain of this story.

Dust.

One year ago — on Aug. 5, 2015 — an EPA crew at the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of orange water filled with mercury and arsenic.

The toxic spill flowed into the Animas River, eventually running into New Mexico's San Juan River and into Lake Powell. So far, disaster response and water quality monitoring have cost the EPA about $29 million — and the problem isn't over yet.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Gov. John Hickenlooper has formally requested that a set of abandoned mines above Silverton be listed as a Superfund site. The request comes nearly seven months after an Environmental Protection Agency cleanup crew triggered a massive spill of polluted water from the Gold King Mine, turning the Animas River orange.

A Superfund listing may seem like a solution to the area's long-standing problem of mine pollution, but getting a site on the National Priorities List, EPA's official compendium of Superfund sites, is just the first step in a lengthy process.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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.

EPA

Say the names of these Colorado towns out loud: Silverton. Leadville. Silver Plume. Rico. Bonanza. Ironton. The last two are ghost towns, but the names of each allude to a history that - most of the time - is nearly invisible to most of the state's residents.

That mineral-rich past burst into the public consciousness after Environmental Protection Agency workers mistakenly triggered a release of contaminated water from the Gold King mine just above Silverton. The rust-colored water, laden with iron and several heavy metals, including very high concentrations of arsenic and lead, oozed its way down the Animas River, through the town of Durango and into New Mexico and beyond.

In the spill's wake, many questions have been raised. One is, just how big is the scale of mining wastewater problems in Colorado? Another is, what is being done to clean them up?

Jonathan Thompson / used w/ permission

The Environmental Protection Agency has said it caused a large release of hazardous water from a mine above the town of Silverton, in Southwest Colorado. Which begs the question: What was the EPA doing with heavy equipment at a mine in the San Juan Mountains?

To understand that, you have to understand the history of mining in Colorado and the West.