Lots of work left to make Eagle mine safe
November 15, 2008
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” It’s been a long road undoing more than 100 years of reckless waste and extreme contamination at the Eagle Mine.
When cleanup crews entered the site 20 years ago, they were dealing with an environmental monster left behind by miners, with piles of zinc, cadmium, copper and other types of metal waste covering much of the mine’s 235 acres.
“I mean, in huge piles, like millions of tons,” said Wendy Naugle, a site manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
It was 8 million tons of mine waste to be exact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site.
But it’s not so bad anymore, and the mine is slowly becoming safer for people and the environment, and the latest five-year review recently published by the EPA shows just that.
“For the most part, the cleanup has been highly successful,” Naugle said. “The next step is to go to (the site’s owner) CBS and say, ‘You have got to do more.’ And that’s not done yet, but they know.”
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The review shows what Naugle, CBS and anyone else who watched the cleanup closely already knew: The remedies put in place by the EPA haven’t quite brought the contamination levels in the Eagle River to a point that’s safe for most fish and the environment, but they are safe for people.
But there’s a caveat to that.
The levels at the site are safe for people, but only for its current use. And the site is deserted and hasn’t been inhabited for years. If plans for residential development proposed by the Ginn Co. are to be realized, then there’s some work to be done, Naugle said, which would include removing arsenic contamination from the soil.
“It’s a very quick, easy thing to do to remove that contaminated dirt to make it safe,” Naugle said, “which is very different than to try and improve the water quality.”
Raising the water quality to a level that is safe for people and different fish ” like rainbow trout and sculpin ” seems to be the biggest task ahead.
In June, the state Water Quality Control Commission adopted new, stricter limits on how much toxic metal is allowed to flow through the Eagle River, which runs through the mine. Two different seasonal limits were set forth in order to make the river cleaner for other fish besides the resilient brown trout in the river now.
According to Keith Kepler, president of the Eagle River Watershed Council’s shootoff ERWC Eagle Mine Ltd., the Hazardous Waste Materials Division wanted one set of year-round standards and his group wanted stricter standards at certain points in the year and more lenient ones when the river’s flow is lower.
“We wanted to set a standard that would reflect a higher quality of water during the wetter months when the river comes up higher,” Kepler said. “Much of the year the standards are met. But in the drier months, the standards aren’t met. They approved something in between.”
So with these new standards and an official assessment of the contamination levels at the site showing the site is on the right track, the next step, Naugle said, is, well, kind of uncertain right now. Naugle would like the mine’s owner, CBS Corp., to conduct alternative studies on how to best attack the remaining water contamination threats in the area.
“We’re to the point now where everything is difficult,” she said. “It’s going to take a while to have success.”
That’s where a group like Eagle Mine Ltd. comes in. Kepler said the group’s main charge is to collect input from anyone with an idea or an opinion and take it back to entities like the EPA or Ginn Co.
“I think we can be kind of like the spokesman for the people,” he said. “We’re hoping to be involved in that process as that gets going.”
The EPA’s public affairs specialist Jennifer Chergo said any new plans moving forward at the site ” which should be one last big push to be able to declare the site clean and safe ” will be well-thought out and very well known to those who stay in tune with the site’s progress.
“Wherever we go forward and do next in order to make the biggest impact, that’s all going to be determined by a process that will be very public,” she said.
But, she said, it’s going to be a long process, and neither she nor Naugle wanted to set any targets for when they want to make any declarations of success.
“This was never the kind of site where it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re done,'” Chergo said. “The real message is that we are going to initiate a process that will take us further.”
Dustin Racioppi can be reached at (970)748-2936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.