We have the technology to clean up many abandoned mines and their toxic heritage. Scores of successful non-point-source cleanup projects have been completed in the San Juan Mountains. But efforts to install a bioreactor (treatment system) to address mine discharge have halted projects due to liability concerns.
Non-point-source is when surface water (example: a creek) and/or precipitation such as rain and snow intermingle with a mine’s waste rock pile. This is considered runoff from soil and usually does not require a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. To date, Trout Unlimited and its partners have restored over 65 acres of mine tailings, stabilized over a mile of stream bank and installed over 230 in-stream structures that are now home to brook trout in the Kerber Creek watershed in Saguache County.
Near Lake City, the Lake Fork Valley Conservancy and partners have performed non-point-source remediation at seven mine sites including the largest mine waste pile at the Hough Mine in Hinsdale County. They have also successfully addressed the waste rock piles at the Ute-Ulay mine through innovative paste repository technology. However, draining adits at these and other sites remain untouched and Henson Creek remains impacted. More water quality improvements could be made.
In the upper Animas River basin near Silverton and close to Durango, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and partners have performed dozens of successful non-point-source cleanup projects, greatly improving water quality. But 31 additional identified sites remain untouched and await liability relief.
These restoration projects represent big wins for local communities, which benefit from cleaner water and enhanced economic revenue from recreation such as hunting, fishing and river boating. The non-point-source cleanup portions of these examples are a good start, but that’s as far as well-intended groups can go under current laws.