Experts will enter the mine to develop a long-term remediation plan
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — For the second time in a century, heavy machinery will rumble high into the Peru Creek drainage — but this time, the bulldozers, loaders and trucks will be be there to try and clean up some of the mess left behind as toxic legacy of the mining era.
Local officials say the work planned this summer at the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine is a major step in the ongoing exploration of the mine to investigate sources of heavy metal-laden waters draining from the mine and to improve water quality in Peru Creek and the Snake River, where concentrations of heavy metals like cadmium and zinc are high enough to kill trout and impair other aquatic life.
“We are very optimistic that, after years of collaborative work, we have reached the point where we can now enter the mine to identify potential mechanisms to reduce the acid mine drainage impacting aquatic habitat in Peru Creek,” said Summit County Open Space and Trails director Brian Lorch.
The mine has been identified as one of the primary sources of metals from acid mine drainage. As water pours and trickles across the shattered, mineral-rich rock from the mine, the ensuing chemical reaction dissolves the metals. The mine operated from the late 1880s into the early 1930s and produced over $3 million in silver, lead and zinc.
One part of the planned work involves moving some of the waste rock from the mine away from running water, a technique that has proven successful in other remediation projects.
A collaborative task force including local, state and federal stakeholders have been grappling with the pollution for years, as cost estimates for a cleanup have soared.
This summer, the various parties collaborating on the cleanup will also try to enter the old mine itself to try and figure how water moves through the shafts and tunnels. That may help the experts figure out if they can permanently block the water coming out of the mine with a bulkhead, according to Lane Wyatt, a water expert with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.
“That’s the big thing, is opening up the Penn Mine … that’s kind of exciting, going in see what’s going on in there. That might help us develop some remedial options based on more than just guessing,” Wyatt said.
Other potential remediation options include a water treatment facility, or perhaps even trying to block or divert water before it gets into the mine.
“The Forest Service has been involved in looking for ways to clean up the Penn Mine for many years. This is a great step forward,” said acting Dillon District Ranger Peech Keller.
The Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety (DRMS), in cooperation with the White River National Forest, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety and Summit County will soon be conducting excavation activities at the Pennsylvania Mine near Montezuma. The Snake River Watershed Task Force and the Blue River Watershed Group are also in support of the project.
Peru Creek Road will remain open except for some brief periods of closures for minor road improvements. Expect increased truck traffic during the summer. Four wheel drive access to Cinnamon Creek will remain open, but access to the mine will be closed.
Jeff Graves, of the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, will oversee the contractors conducting the excavation activities.
“From mid-May to August, heavy equipment will be opening the main portal of the mine. We are asking the public to avoid visiting the mine portal due to safety concerns,” Graves said.