State opts for cleaner river
MINTURN – Last summer Eagle Mine owner Viacom and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment were about to recommend new water-quality standards below the mine at Gilman that were more relaxed than some felt the stream deserved.But after last April’s fish census that showed an inexplicable 30 percent decline in brown trout in the Eagle River below the Eagle Mine, and in the face of fierce local opposition, the health department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are now pushing more stringent water-quality standards through 2008.”Maybe we were being a little premature in changing the underlying standards,” said Jeff Deckler, remedial program manager for the health department. “It was the comments we got.”The proposal to relax standards met with fierce opposition from local water districts and others last summer when they were proposed in Minturn.”I think they backed off when they were going to get called to task on it,” said Steve Bushong, a water attorney representing the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, Vail Resorts and the Eagle Park Reservoir company.The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission will consider the water-quality standards at its February meeting.In the crosshairs of the debate is the amount of dissolved zinc in the Eagle River below the mine. Even in concentrations as minute as 250 parts per billion, the equivalent of 25 cents out of $1 million, zinc can harm fish. In the 1980s and ’90s metals-laden water from the defunct Eagle Mine and its works killed a 7-mile stretch of the river from the mine at Gilman to Dowd Junction.After a $70 million to $80 million EPA Superfund cleanup that took mine-owner Viacom 10 years, the river has recovered and the cleanup has largely been judged a success.
During the cleanup temporary water-quality standards were observed because the activity could stir up the river, increasing the amount of pollutants.More, smaller fishBrown trout numbers are being used to assess the health of the river. Until last spring, fish numbers had improved steadily. But their length and weight is less than that of fish in waters not containing as much zinc, said biologist John Woodling, who has studied the Eagle’s fish for the last 15 years.And it has not been determined what caused the decline in fish numbers last year.”Given the fact that there is some uncertainty in the 2004 biological data that will not be resolved in time for the Feb. 2005 hearing, we are proposing that the existing temporary modifications be made more stringent while the uncertainty is investigated,” the health department wrote in its response to comments about the water-quality plan. “While we are confident that the proposed standards will be shown to be protective of the aquatic community, the Colorado (Division) of Wildlife has not provided some of the documentation that would support proceeding with the original proposal including the final biological report for 2004 and the habitat analysis,” the agency said. By the numbersThe recommended amount of zinc allowed in the river will vary according to the portion of the river, and also whether it’s a high- or low-flow period. But trying to make the Eagle River’s zinc load equal to that of a stream in a non-mined area may not be practical, said Hank Ipsen, an attorney for Viacom.
“You can’t return the site to the state of nature after many decades of mining activity, so what do you do?” he said. “How do you establish reasonable and cost-effective goals?” Viacom believes the brown trout declined last year because of variations in water flow that may have affected a single-age class of fish, and the company will continue to count the Eagle’s fish, Ipsen said. Viacom also operates a special water-treatment plant south of Minturn that removes metal pollution from mine water.More cleanup?But the director of a local river watchdog group said more cleanup has to be done. Caroline Bradford, director of the Minturn-based Eagle River Watershed Council, said she’s particularly concerned about a spot where ore spilled beneath an old tramway line. But who might clean that stretch is unclear, she said.”I think it’s great Viacom has spent so much time, effort and money to clean up the mine waste,” she said. “We need to clean up the area right at the base of the mine. It continues to be the largest zinc loading site to the river.”When it rains or there is runoff from snowmelt, Bradford said there is up to 170,000 parts zinc per-billion in the runoff.During an extremely heavy thunderstorm one summer, 6.3 pounds of zinc per hour flowed into the river, she said.One effort by Viacom to reduce the zinc flowing out of the mine involved plugging the water flowing out of the Liberty Well deep within the mine, but that has only been partially successful. Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 450, or firstname.lastname@example.orgVail, Colorado