Crews fix minor spill at Eagle Mine, with few worries about contamination
Leak site was only 120 feet from the Eagle River
A sharp-eyed Minturn resident this week spotted a leak in the miles of plumbing between the Eagle Mine and its water treatment plant near Minturn. The leak has been fixed, with little contaminated water reaching the Eagle River.
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District was among the agencies contacted about the leak. District Director of Operations Siri Roman said in a statement that the small spill didn’t affect the agency’s water treatment operations.
The leak came from a fitting at a joint in the plumbing. According to a release from the Eagle River Watershed Council, that leak was caused by the freeze-thaw cycle that comes with warming early-spring weather. The leak was found at a compression fitting in some of the exposed pipeline between the mine site at Gilman and the treatment plant.
Bolts were tightened on the fitting, stopping the leak.
That pipeline carries about 200 gallons per minute of contaminated water from the mine works. The leak was estimated at roughly five gallons per minute.
It’s unknown just when the fitting began to leak, but over the span of several days the volume of the release still added up to roughly 36,000 gallons, about 120 feet from the river.
“Only a fraction” of the total spill made it to the river, said Jamie Miller, a remedial project manager with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Miller added that whatever mine water got into the river was handled through regular water treatment methods.
“We did sample (water) right away just downstream,” Miller said.
Roman noted that she doesn’t expect to see any kind of spike in metals in the river due to the spill.
Eagle River Watershed Council Director Holly Loff said river water monitoring is continuing. “We’re not finding much evidence of metals in the water,” she added.
Those metals from the mine include copper, zinc, cadmium and arsenic in very small amounts.
A history of cleanups
Loff said there’s been debate over the years about just how much arsenic is coming from the mine, primarily because levels of the substance are so low it’s hard to measure.
Environmental problems with the mine came to broad attention in the 1980s. When the property was abandoned in 1984, the electricity was shut off and the mine tunnels began to flood. That’s when the Eagle River began to run orange.
The mine in 1986 became an EPA Superfund site, which eventually resulted in the permanent water treatment site at Maloit Park near Minturn.
The cleanup and remediation work is governed by consent decrees between the mine’s “owner of record,” ViacomCBS, state and federal officials.
Miller said that consent decree is being reworked. Part of the new requirements include more frequent monitoring of the entire length of the pipeline. Miller said the joint that started leaking is in a difficult-to-reach area that is only monitored about once a week.
Loff said local groups, including the watershed council and the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, have been advocating for those and other changes, including burying more of the pipeline to avoid weather-related damage.
Loff said the spill could have been a lot worse.
“This is just a reminder that this is an ever-present problem,” she said. “We have to stay vigilant and remain engaged in the conversation (about the mine).”
More important, she added, the way the leak was reported is a “reminder to the community. If you see something orange, please call the town (of Minturn).”
What: The Eagle Mine
The problem: Contaminated water from the mine once flowed into the Eagle River.
Location: Near Gilman, with a water treatment plant near Minturn.
Oversight: The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency are the lead agencies. Concerns can be reported to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment’s 24-hour hotline, 877-518-5608
For more information: Go to the Eagle River Watershed Council’s website.