An environmental accident waiting to happen | VailDaily.com

An environmental accident waiting to happen

Alex Miller

Preston Utley/Vail DailyBarriers, known as "cribbings," made of old railroad ties, hold back waste rock from spilling into and polluting the Eagle River near Minturn.

MINTURN – Hundreds of tons of contaminated waste rock from an old zinc mine are perched above the Eagle River below the old town of Gilman. Rotting railroad-tie fences known as “cribbings” are the only thing holding them back, and experts say it’s only a matter of time before it all comes tumbling down.”Those wooden cribbings are getting pretty old and rotten,” said Hays Griswold of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “If they were to fail, there could be a significant amount of that rock going into the river, and it contains acid-generating material and certain toxic metals.”Griswold inspected the site Thursday with other experts studying the situation and how to address it, he said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when,'” said Caroline Bradford, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, an environmental watchdog group based in Avon that identified the problem.A study commissioned by the Watershed Council last year demonstrated the rocks being held back by the cribbings are polluted. The waste rock comes from a zinc mine abandoned in the late 1800s. Photos of the area, with the railroad tracks and Eagle River just below it, show the cribbings in place more than a century ago.

It doesn’t take an expert to look at the structures and imagine them falling down before long. Much of the old timber is obviously rotted, and many of the timbers are bent and compressed from the years and the weight of the rock.The rocks contain sulfides which, when exposed to water and oxygen, form an acid that dissolves the metals in the rock, allowing them to leach out, Griswold said.What to doThe questions now are what to do with it and who pays. The site of the cribbings lies just outside the old Eagle Mine Superfund site, which has been the target of a massive cleanup and reclamation over the past two decades. The slope in question is just above the Eagle Mine’s Belden entrance, where miners entered tunnels into the mountain.

But while the Eagle Mine has had the benefit of a responsible party to pay for cleanup -Viacom, which owned the land before selling it to the Ginn Companies, now developing it as a private ski and golf resort – the cribbings is on land of uncertain ownership.”It’s old mining claims,” Griswold said. “We don’t know who owns them.”He added that part of the study of the site would include an attempt to identify a “potentially responsible party” – meaning an individual or corporation who currently or at one time was an owner of the land. More likely, Griswold said, the cost would fall to the EPA, which has an emergency response program for such situations.Early estimates put the cleanup cost for the cribbings at $1.2 million to $2 million, Bradford said. Before anything can happen, though, more study is required, and the Watershed Council is trying to raise an additional $20,000 for that.”We don’t know yet what to do with it,” Bradford said. “It’s no easy thing.”

Options could include shoring up the cribbings and leaving the waste rock where it is; or removing it – possibly to the consolidated waste pile created near Maloit Park for the Eagle Mine cleanup. Either way, it won’t be easy. While some of the cribbings are located near the level of the railroad track and the service road that runs along it, others are higher up on an extremely steep slope.Griswold said the EPA is looking at the possibility of installing some kind of structure at the bottom of the cliff that would halt a slide from going into the river if the cribbings fail.What’s clear, Bradford said, is that if it falls, it’ll be a disaster for the health of the river. The stretch of the Eagle River between Belden and Dowd Junction has been slowly recovering from high levels of pollutants from the mine that all but wiped out fish and bug life decades ago. While the levels of zinc in the river are still above required standards – and still the subject of debate – Bradford said the fish and bug population is in much better shape now than it was in the 1980s.Given the apparent severity of the situation, Griswold said mitigation of the site is likely to take place sooner rather than later probably within a year.

Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or amiller@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado