Helping restore the Eagle River river |

Helping restore the Eagle River river

Cliff Thompson
Daily file photoThe Eagle River is still recovering from contamination at the now-abandoned Eagle Mine at Belden, where miners constructed 75 miles of tunnels.

“The community knows what the Eagle River needs. We have $2 million to make it happen,” says Wendy Naugle, project manager.Acidic seepage from the Eagle Mine and other commercial activities killed all aquatic life in the river and forced the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare the now abandoned Eagle Zinc Mine beneath Gilman and its tailings a Superfund site 19 years ago.Environmental watchdog agencies and Gulf & Western, now Viacom, settled on what needed to be done to fix the problems caused by the mine five years later. Part of that settlement included a $1.7 million fine committed to restoring what was damaged or destroyed. With interest accrued over 14 years, the fund has grown to $3.2 million, or which $2 million is offered for a project to begin next fall.The mine was sealed years ago, and its tailings were consolidated and capped. Any water leaking from the mine now is treated by a small water treatment plant.Since the spill and subsequent cleanup, the river has largely recovered and fish and invertebrate populations have rebounded, surveys have shown.But the river still has been heavily impacted by more than 100 years of industrial and commercial activities along its banks. The Union Pacific Railroad tracks roughly follow the banks of the river through Eagle County, for example. As important, perhaps, has been diversions of the river for agricultural and domestic use that have reduced flows.Getting to point of actually receiving bids for restoring the river warms the heart of Tom Steinberg, who has been working on cleaning up the river since 1988.”It’s taken a long, long time, but we’re getting there. Persistence pays off,” he says.For Caroline Bradford of the Eagle River Watershed Council, it means the talking stops and action begins.”It’s nice to reach this stage of the process because it feels like you’re spinning your wheels until you get to this point,” she says. “It will be nice to see something happen on the ground and in the river.”Three bids are expected, one of the most widely publicized involving a 0.8-mile stretch of river through downtown Minturn. The proposal calls for adding more pools, riffles and streamside vegetation along the shoulders of the stream. The $75, 000 plan , developed by Ecological Resource Consultants of Golden, was paid by the town of MInturn, Vail Resorts, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.A second bid seeks to bolster flow of the river when it is at its lowest flow with an interesting concept. The proposal suggests earmarking water stored in the Eagle Park Reservoir east of Camp Hale and purchasing a restriction on where it can be used. It will keep water in the basin, rather than allowing it to be traded or sold for use elsewhere.”Rather than buy shares outright in Eagle Park Reservoir and pay the full price, proponents of the river restoration project can ensure the water flows all the way to Dowd Junction before it is diverted,” says water attorney Glenn Porzak. “It would keep that water from being used in a trade with the Blue River or the Arkansas.”A third bid expected from the Eagle Valley Land Trust and the Eagle River Watershed Council proposes purchasing a $300,000 conservation easement to 62.5 acres of wetlands that feed into the Eagle River at the base of Tennessee Pass. The Westermann-Phelps property is bisected by Highway 24 and contains numerous beaver ponds, creeks and riparian habitat. It also contains remnants of Taylor City, an old mining camp. The Eagle Valley Land Trust has committed $30,000 toward the easement.A final decision on spending the money will be administered by an ad hoc governor-appointed board comprised of representatives of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the Attorney General and the Department of Natural Resources. The money will be spent on projects that restore, replace or acquire the natural resources damaged or destroyed as a result of the release of the mine pollution.Bids are being accepted by the Colorado Department of Health, Eagle Mine Project Manager, Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, 4300 Cherry Creek Drive South, Denver, Colo. 80246, and are due by Oct. 21.Eagle Mine timeline:- December 1983: Elevated levels of metals are found in the Eagle River after mine tailings and mine water is no longer treated.- October 1984: EPA proposes the Eagle Mine as candidate for Superfund cleanup, and in 1986 it was included.- June 1988: Cleanup agreement and remedial action plan between state, EPA and Gulf & Western, now Viacom, is approved in court. Cleanup activities begin.- November 1989: Snow made at Beaver Creek has an orangish tint from tainted Eagle River water. River runs orange with contamination as cleanup continues. (Some river rocks still bear the orange stain from the pollutants.)- August 1990 : Revised cleanup plan is created to include treating mine seepage, groundwater and to eliminate pumping water back into mine.- February 1991: Second water treatment plan for groundwater and seepage goes on line.- March 1993: EPA issues Record of Decision to modify cleanup standards for river for metals contamination and to monitor runoff and to speed consolidation of tailings and roaster piles. River begins to show improvement.- July 1994: EPA orders Viacom to carry out the directives noted in the Record of Decision. That included monitoring surface and groundwater, testing material from waste rock piles, more monitoring of tailings pile and wetlands.- September 1997: Tailings pile is capped and mine works at Belden are cleaned. River shows marked recovery. Fish-shocking survey shows return of fish to areas that were dead.- September 2001: Construction phase of cleanup is announced.- Fall 2003: Restoration begins.Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or

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