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Summit County Government

Posted on: December 15, 2020

New Report Gleans Lessons Learned From Toxic Mine Cleanup

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A diverse stakeholder group worked together for two decades to overcome barriers in liability, funding and access to improve water quality in one of Colorado’s most impaired watersheds

Contact: Jason Lederer, Summit County Open Space and Trails, (970) 668-4213

Summit County - A new report released by the Snake River Watershed Task Force and the Keystone Policy Center (KPC) tells the remarkable story of a long list of partners collaborating over the course of 20 years to heal one of Colorado’s most damaged watersheds. Of Colorado’s 23,000-plus abandoned mines, the Pennsylvania Mine in the Peru Creek watershed near Montezuma was long considered one of the most environmentally toxic.

Today this area is a year-round destination for recreational enjoyment, but it bears the scars of a long and damaging mining history. Prospectors discovered silver in the Peru Creek watershed during the mid-1800s. Over the course of nearly a century blasting apart rock in search for silver, gold, lead, copper, and zinc, they caused significant landscape and environmental damage.

The Pennsylvania Mine, along with dozens of other nearby mine sites, adds toxic levels of heavy metals and acidifies the water flowing into Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River, which flows through Keystone into Dillon Reservoir, Denver Water’s largest water storage facility and a popular recreation area. With the original polluters long gone, there is no one to hold accountable for the damage. So cleaning up these abandoned mine sites presents numerous liability, funding, and access challenges. 

To address these challenges, the Snake River Watershed Task Force brought together representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service (USFS); Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety; Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; Northwest Colorado Council of Governments; Summit County Open Space and Trails; Trout Unlimited; local community members; and ski areas. The partnership centered its efforts on improving water quality conditions to the point where the Snake River could support a sustainable fishery for the first time in over a century.

“Federal, state and local agencies all had interest in addressing the significant environmental issues in the watershed. Due to the numerous complexities of doing so, collaboration was essential in the cleanup process,” said Julie Shapiro, senior policy director for KPC’s Natural Resources Program and Emerging Technologies Program, who served as a facilitator in keeping stakeholders organized and focused.  

“Everybody comes into this with their own authority, their own financial constraints, and their own sort of operating culture, so putting it together as a team and getting that right is not always easy,” said Paul Peronard, on-scene coordinator for EPA Region 8. “It’s much easier when you have an end game in mind to then divvy up work and figure out who’s going to do what, and part of our role was to give an umbrella for everybody to do their part.” 

Summit County supported Task Force efforts by helping to reduce legal and liability risk. The County strategically acquired the old mine sites from private property owners to protect them as undeveloped public open space. 

“Summit County has entered into agreements to take partial or full ownership of mined properties after they are cleaned up, which has given the owners the comfort they need to allow remediation work to fix water quality concerns,” said Brian Lorch, director of Summit County Open Space and Trails. “Though mining will always be a part of Summit County’s history, the County has been innovative in improving, restoring, and protecting this place for future generations to enjoy. 

After years of implementing smaller remediation projects in the watershed, acquiring access rights, procuring funding, and addressing liability concerns, the Task Force achieved one of its major milestones with the EPA and State of Colorado installing bulkheads in the leaking Pennsylvania Mine adits, one of the largest sources of human-caused heavy metals in the Snake River watershed. These bulkheads will avoid future fish kills in the Snake River and post-project water quality monitoring has shown substantial reductions in metals, as well as decreased water acidity in Peru Creek, indicating that the task force efforts are paying off.

Task Force members acknowledge that it may take years or generations to fully realize the positive impacts of the cleanup work and to see significant improvements in the water quality. Ultimately, the Task Force’s approach has left a legacy beyond just its cleanup efforts. 

“The longer legacy is collaboration and coordination with a multiple array of partners, and that partnership’s going to last a long, long time,” said Paul Semmer, community planner for the Dillon Ranger District, White River National Forest, noting that the Task Force has opened the door for collaboration on a variety of efforts in the area. “There’s a lot more work to do, and hopefully that passion for interrelations and collaboration will be passed on to the next generation.”

The collaboration has been successful in redefining the way abandoned mine cleanups are approached in Summit County and in other parts of Colorado, producing a replicable model for groups around the state and across the West. 

Task force members called the collaboration groundbreaking for daring to jump into the “liability quagmire” and for pooling its resources to find funding, address risk, and share ownership of success. Colorado now has an ongoing statewide collaboration to address abandoned mine issues called the "Mixed Ownership Group," which uses a model similar to the Snake River Task Force.

Additional project information, including the newly published Snake River Watershed Task Force Case Study, is available on the Keystone Policy Center website at: https://www.keystone.org/srwtf/

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