Abandoned mine cleanup planned to reduce toxic heavy metals loading
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — As the first hard rock silver mine in Colorado, the Saints John Mine, above Montezuma, helped fuel the state’s rush to riches during what’s now a legendary era.
But inevitably, the mines played out and the miners moved on. leaving behind a toxic legacy that’s not unique to Saints John. Across the West, thousands of streams and lakes suffered a similar fate.
Beautiful as Saints John Creek may look, it’s heavily polluted with cadmium, copper, lead and zinc that leaches into the water from weathered waste rock and from the underground workings of the former mine.
Concentrations of some of the metals, especially zinc, are so high that the water is deadly to fish and to the aquatic bugs they feed on. As a result, the short stream segment has been listed as impaired since 1998.
This summer, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety plans to start cleaning up the mess with an ambitious $500,000 restoration project that involves moving some of the exposed tailings away from the water to an upland repository, where they’ll be capped and covered with native vegetation.
State officials may also divert some of the water pouring out of an old mine opening to prevent the water from coming in contact with the weathered rock. Altogether, they hope the work will reduce the amount of dissolved zinc in the water by about three pounds per day.
Zinc is particularly toxic to trout, impairing their ability to breathe.
According to the state, the site contains multiple mine waste piles and mill tailings that continually erode into the creek during spring runoff and leach metals into the creek. The state is partnering with Freeport McMoRan, the EPA, Trout Unlimited and other groups on the project.
Freeport McMoRan will fund the majority of the effort with $340,000 via the inactive mine reclamation program.