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Keystone mine may become Superfund

Bob Berwyn
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Mark Fox/Summit DailyZinc and other toxic metals drain from the Pennsylvania Mine in the Peru Creek Gulch last August.
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SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” Sharply increased concentrations of metals in Peru Creek and the Snake River are spurring federal environmental experts to once again consider a Superfund designation for the abandoned Pennsylvania mine near Keystone.

A toxic brew of heavy metals has long been seeping from the mine’s shafts and tunnels, poisoning the water far downstream. Experts say there is no direct human health risk associated with the acid mine drainage. But concentrations of zinc are high enough to kill trout and other aquatic life several miles away at Keystone.

“This project could benefit from a Superfund designation,” said Elizabeth Russell, Trout Unlimited’s project manager for the cleanup.

A Superfund designation sometimes carries an unwanted stigma that is perceived to hurt tourism. Russell acknowledged that public perception could play a role. She said that, in the case of the Pennsylvania mine, the Superfund listing would be very narrowly limited to a small opening where water seeps out of the mine.

An intense rainstorm last summer apparently changed the way water flows through the mine. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was able to trace the flume of polluted water flooding from the mine last summer. Since then, scientists have been taking monthly water samples. Since the early August “burp,” concentrations of zinc have doubled.

The surge of tainted water last summer killed hundreds of stocked trout in the Snake River near Keystone. A team of biologists and volunteers scoured the water for fish after the blow-out at the mine, but found only a few trout that survived the deluge.

“We’ve been seeing an increase in metals loading since the blow-out,” said Jean MacKenzie, remedial project manager for the EPA. “A listing could potentially bring some funding for long-term treatment. In the meeting last week we wanted everyone to know this could be a good option.”

A Superfund designation would only come after a local request to the governor of Colorado, who would pass it along to the federal government. At the earliest, the mine would go the Superfund list in autumn of 2009, MacKenzie said.

Before last summer’s blow-out at the mine, hopes were high that the Snake River Task Force was making progress on the cleanup. Trout Unlimited dedicated a full-time staff person to coordinate the effort.

The cold-water fisheries conservation group had just completed a voluntary and collaborative mine cleanup in Utah and hoped to use that model in Peru Creek. Trout Unlimited was also prepared to bring take on the initial responsibility of building and operating a water treatment facility.

“The blow-out in the Snake River made a Good Samaritan project too pricey,” said Trout Unlimited’s Russell. “We know from work last summer, there are other groundwater problems. There are more complex issues up there.”

Even before the big rainstorm triggered the surge of pollution last August, the price tag for treatment was soaring up into the $2 million to $2.5 million range, well above what Trout Unlimited and the task force had envisioned. With even higher levels of zinc, the cost is likely to increase again, although there won’t be an accurate estimate until the federal experts finish a detailed engineering study.

Along with rising costs, there could be other unintended consequences attached to a Superfund designation, said Summit County water expert Lane Wyatt.

“We don’t want a huge industrial complex up there with a paved road going to it,” he said.


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