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Environment: Ongoing cleanup tackles toxic Peru Creek

July 30 site visit gives public a chance to see progress in $3 million remediation project at abandoned mine in Summit County

November snow and ice along the Snake River, in Summit County, Colorado.

Heavy metal pollution from upstream sources has killed most aquatic life in the Snake River, near Keystone, Colorado. bberwyn photo.

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Staff Report

FRISCO — With recent increases in levels of toxic metals in Peru Creek, the ongoing remediation work at the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine, near Keystone, Colo., takes on an even greater importance in the context of water quality in the Blue River Basin and the Upper Colorado.

The mine, which produced huge amounts of silver 100 years ago, has been pinpointed as one of the main sources of acid mine drainage. Water seeping through the rocky ground trickles into the old mine workings, picks up contaminants along the way, then percolates back into Peru Creek near the head of the beautiful alpine valley.

During the last couple of summers, scientists and engineers have been working to reduce the pollution, and this coming week (July 30) there will be a public field trip to the site, led by Jeff Graves of the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, as well as other members of the Snake River Task Force.

The EPA has committed about $3 million for remediation the next couple of years, including installation of at least one bulkhead intended to block clean water that flows into the mine. The project is formally designated by the EPA as a removal action, with the money coming from the Superfund program, which is designed to address pollution issues with a significant threat to human health and the environment, according to EPA spokesperson Peggy Lin.

“We’re hopefully going to be preventing water from going into the mine … for the most part it’s going to stay underground,” said Marty McComb, with the EPA’s emergency response and removal group.

Based on studies done the past few years, the cleanup team believes that will help cut the amount of acid mine drainage flowing out of the mine and into the creek. Other work will focus on controlling surface water flows in the vicinity of the mine to prevent more erosion of exposed waste.

At some point, a second bulkhead could be installed, said Jeff Graves, with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, which has spent about $600,000 working on Pennsylvania Mine remediation the past few years.

The toxic heavy metals from the mine and other sources taint the water far downstream, with concentrations lead, cadmium, managanese and especially zinc exceed standards set to protect aquatic life in the stream.

The mine operated between 1879 and 1908, and intermittently through the 1940s, producing gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc. As water and oxygen interact with the highly mineralized rocks, so-called acid mine drainage forms, loading the stream with dissolved heavy metals.

The pollution has been increasing in recent years with a couple of significant spikes that resulted in fish kills in the Snake River. A multi-partner task force of government agencies and private stakeholders has been working on a potential cleanup plan for years.

To participate in this week’s visit to the site, RSVP with Julie Shapiro (jshapiro@keystone.org). RSVPs are requested but not required; drop-ins are welcome however please be sure to arrive before 1 p.m. at The Keystone Center parking lot.

Field trip participants will meet at 12:45 p.m. at The Keystone Center (1628 Sts John Road, Keystone, CO) and then carpool to the Pennsylvania Mine Site.  Please bring your own food and water and wear appropriate clothing for the visit.  Participants may need to use their own vehicles to carpool or may be asked to ride with others attending on the field trip – depending on turnout, vehicle access restrictions (e.g., a 30-foot limit) related to the temporary bridge at the Peru Creek road access point, and road conditions (high clearance and 4WD are recommended however recent road improvements have made access to the lower level of the mine site easier for most vehicles).

For more information about the Snake River Watershed Task Force, including information about the Pennsylvania Mine and other cleanup efforts in the watershed the last meeting that was presented at our most recent meeting in February 2014, please visit http://www.snakerivertaskforce.org.

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