Efforts underway to upgrade remediation at Eagle Mine site | VailDaily.com

Efforts underway to upgrade remediation at Eagle Mine site

Portions of cleanup area could feature residential development once work is complete

This map details the various features of the Eagle Mine Superfund cleanup site.
Special to the Daily

Eagle Mine History

The Eagle Mine has had a profound impact on Eagle County, first as an economic driver and later as an EPA Superfund site.

Mining activity in the area dates back to the 1870s when prospectors searched for gold and silver and used roasting and magnetic separation in their efforts.

In 1912, the Empire Zinc Co. began consolidating mining claims into what is now the Eagle Mine. The New Jersey Zinc Co. acquired the property in 1917 and operated the facility for 49 years. During that time the mine was the biggest source of property tax revenue in Eagle County. At peak operation, around 700 people were employed at the site. Many of those miners and their families lived at Gilman, the now-abandoned community that’s perched on the hillside along U.S. Highway 24 south of Minturn.

In 1966, Gulf + Western acquired New Jersey Zinc and ran the operation until 1977. At that time, Gulf + Western closed the mill at Belden and halted most of the mining operations.

Then, from an environmental standpoint, things got very interesting.

In 1983, the mine was sold to Glenn Miller of Battle Mountain Corp. That same year, the state of Colorado filed a lawsuit against the mine’s owners and former owner/operators for environmental damages resulting from the mine operations. In 1984, the property was abandoned, the electricity was shut off and the mine tunnels began to flood. Downstream from the mine, the Eagle River took on an orange hue.

In 1986, the Eagle Mine became a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site and CBS Operations, the entity that ended up with the property, was charged with undertaking the cleanup at the site.

Cleanup starts

In general terms, the plan called for the removal of contaminated materials from tailing piles and roaster piles located around the mine. Those materials were shipped to a consolidated pile located at Maloit Park, where an impermeable barrier was constructed and a water treatment plant was built.

Today the Eagle Mine Water Treatment Plant treats an average of 221 gallons per minute or 116 million gallons per year. During the process, the plan removes 178 pounds of metals per day, which are pressed into filter cakes that are then taken to a lined area at the Maloit Park site. The treated water is then returned to the Eagle River.

The cleanup operations began in 1988 and continued through 1993. In 1996, the EPA required additional cleanup activities at the site, which were declared complete in 2001. But the environmental remediation at the Eagle Mine likely will never end.  CBS continues to pay roughly $1 million per year for ongoing mitigation at the site. The total cost of the cleanup to date is approaching $60 million.

MINTURN — In a valley where developable sites are highly sought after, the prospect of several hundred acres of vacant land located adjacent to existing community resources seems like a proverbial “too good to be true” deal.

In many ways, that is an apt description. The land in question is expansive and it is located next to the town of Minturn, but it is also part of the Eagle Mine Superfund cleanup site. While residential development is plausible in the area, the developers must work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Colorado to meet a more rigid cleanup standard before they can start building houses.

“For the original remediation, the standards were the recreational use standard,” said Jamie Miller, EPA Eagle Mine Remedial Project Manager. “Development would require basically going in to find hot spots that don’t meet the residential standard.”

If the history at the Eagle Mine has taught us anything, work that sounds straightforward on the page is painstaking in the field. Battle Mountain Development has proposed bringing the Rex Flats and Bolts Lake areas of the Eagle Mine site to a developable standard but that plan will require sampling and study before the remediation can begin. According to Miller, this summer may see the first steps in that process.

A decade of discussion

The idea of developing some of the Eagle Mine property is not new. In 2008, Minturn voters overwhelmingly approved Battle Mountain Resort, a massive plan for 4,60o acres south of town.

Last summer, Battle Mountain Development officials announced that they had reached an agreement for an Administrative Order on Consent from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would allow remediation work to begin near Maloit Park. They also confirmed the planned sale of the majority of the company’s land between Minturn and Red Cliff.

But Battle Mountain Development retained the Rex Flats, Maloit Park and Bolts Lake areas just south of town. Those are the areas that still require remediation of old mining waste. The original approval from Minturn for the area called for 700 units of “market-rate” housing on just more than 500 acres, plus a 13-story hotel, golf and commercial space. But in 2018, company officials said their plans for all but the homes had been scrapped.

Jennifer Chergo, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator for the Eagle Mine Project, noted the federal agency is not weighing in on the development plan itself. Instead, the EPA’s role will be to ensure the developers meet the remediation standard for residential projects. But a plan to bring the cleanup to a higher standard is, naturally, good news for the EPA.

“We are really excited that Battle Mountain Development wants to do this additional remediation. One of the original goals of the cleanup was to get private involvement in the project,”Miller said. “We are really looking forward to getting this work done.”

What’s up with the trestle?

When development proposals are bandied about for the Eagle Mine site, questions inevitably surface about the future of the wooden trestle that crosses the property. The massive structure dates back to the site’s mining heyday and is still in use today.

This trestle is part of an elaborate system to carry contaminated water from the more than 70 miles of tunnels at the Eagle Mine to a treatment plant at Maloit Park near Minturn.

“Right now, the trestle carries the pipeline that carries water from the mine to the water treatment plant,”Miller said. “There aren’t any plans, right now, for anything to happen with the trestle.”

Miller said an archeological assessment of the structure revealed it would be eligible for listing with the National Register of Historic Places and the Colorado Register of Historic Places. However, Kathy Heicher, of the Eagle County Historical Society, said she was unaware of any efforts to date to actually have the trestle listed as a historic landmark.

Activity and information

With the possibility of development looming at the site, locals will see more Eagle Mine Superfund communications and activity.

“Because there is more on-going work we want to have more of a presence in the community,” Miller said.

That means both activity at the site and more community meetings hosted by the EPA. Miller said officials with the EPA and the state of Colorado will host quarterly information meetings about the site. The last was held in December, the next will likely happen in March or April.