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Toxic rock may be moved

Nicole Frey
Photo courtesy of Eagle River Watershed CouncilCribbings more than a 100 years old perch precariously on a hillside near the Eagle Mine south of Minturn. The Environmental Protection Agency is firming plans to move the toxic rock to a safer place.
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MINTURN ” Thousands of tons of polluted rock sit on a hillside overlooking the Eagle River at the Eagle Mine, south of Minturn.

The product of decades of mining, the toxic rock is held up by a few wooden slats, called “cribbings,” that are more than 100 years old and decidedly past their best years.

With each passing year, the chance of the whole thing collapsing into the Eagle River and causing another environmental catastrophe in the river increases, said Caroline Bradford, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group.

But progress is being made to reduce the risk of that happening.

Government in the United States doesn’t happen fast, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which said the problem would be figured out in May, is just beginning to sketch out a solution.

Plans are being firmed to move the rock to a safer location just a couple hundred yards south of its current home, said Jim Stearns, an attorney with the Environmental Protection Agency.

“A final decision hasn’t been made, but we’re getting pretty close,” Stearns said.

But any forward movement is positive in the eyes of the people who want to see the toxic rock moved before it tumbles into the river. If the ancient cribbings were to give way, the polluted rock would landslide into the Eagle River below, damming up the river, Bradford said.

The toxic metals in the rock ” including zinc, copper and cadmium ” would trickle downstream, and when the rock dam was finally broken, a wall of water would head straight for the town of Minturn, Bradford said.

Plans are being firmed to move the rock to a safer location just a couple hundred yards south of its current home, said Jim Stearns, an attorney with the Environmental Protection Agency.

“A final decision hasn’t been made, but we’re getting pretty close,” Stearns said.

But any forward movement is positive in the eyes of the people who want to see the toxic rock moved before it tumbles into the river. If the ancient cribbings were to give way, the polluted rock would landslide into the Eagle River below, damming up the river, Bradford said.

The toxic metals in the rock ” including zinc, copper and cadmium ” would trickle downstream, and when the rock dam was finally broken, a wall of water would head straight for the town of Minturn, Bradford said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has asked the Union Pacific Railroad Co. to pull up 1,500 feet of railroad tracks so an access road can be built. The road will lead to a depression in the earth that will be used as dumping grounds for the toxic rock.

While no contracts have been signed, Union Pacific was rumored to have verbally agreed to pony up $100,000 to remove the tracks because the Environmental Protection Agency had a good case that might have pinned a bigger price tag on the railroad. Union Pacific, which is believed to own to land where the toxic rock now sits, did not return Vail Daily phone calls.

“Nothing’s final there because we don’t operate on verbal agreements,” Stearns said. “But lets hope it’ll happen in the next couple months.”

When the road is constructed, the Environmental Protection Agency will then contract out the delicate process of moving the 45,000 to 50,000 tons of dangerous rock to the hole in the ground and stack it against the hillside east of the railroad tracks.

“There’s minimal if any risk of sliding into the river” and erosion will be prevented, Stearns said.

The new site will still be close to the Eagle River, but it should be safer because the polluted rock won’t be held up by a few deteriorating beams of wood threatening to collapse into the river at any moment.

“This is a great idea,” Bradford said. “It eliminates the threat of a catastrophic failure. I’m thrilled that research done by the watershed council has led to the EPA taking action on this side.”

Bradford also credited Colorado State University for the studies it did in the area for the watershed council.

While moving the rock to a more secure location is good news, there are still questions about how secure the dangerous minerals will be there.

The toxic minerals will still be able to leach into the river because the Environmental Protection Agency has no plans to put an impermeable layer under the waste rock. There are also no plans to cover the rock with an impermeable cap. Instead, clean rock will be placed on top.

Stearns said there isn’t enough flat land to cap the rock and he doesn’t think the water running off the toxic rock will be caught and treated, as are Viacom’s waste piles. International entertainment conglomerate Viacom was responsible for cleaning up the Eagle Mine.

“We’re addressing the catastrophic failure where tons of rock would fall into the river that would cause spikes in zinc and other minerals,” Stearns said. “We’re not addressing the water issue.”

Before settling on moving waste rock upstream, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations involved considered other options, including putting a net over the retaining walls to hold them in place and moving the rock out of the state.

Another possibility would have put the polluted rock on top of existing Viacom waste piles, which are already consolidated and stored just outside Minturn’s city limits.

While it was the most environmentally friendly alternative, it was ultimately rejected because melding waste rock belonging to both Viacom and Union Pacific Railroad Co. could create legal problems.

Moving the rock out of the state would have been too expensive, and organizations involved agreed not to pawn off the problem on someone else.

Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 748-2927 or nfrey@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado


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