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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

Of Mines and Minerals

By Eryn Gable

Ever since William Green Russell discovered gold at the mouth of Dry Creek in 1858, mining has been a fact of life in Colorado. It was the lure of making a fortune from the state's vast natural resources that led many settlers here.

Today, that historical legacy of mining has Colorado in an odd position: The state is left with an environmental legacy of degraded streams and piles of toxic waste. At the same time, it's attracting attention—and more mining—because of the remaining resource richness.

As environmental groups argue for updated mining laws, climbing mineral prices have sparked a new rush. The current laws allow mining interests to take valuable hardrock minerals from public lands without paying royalties—unlike the severance taxes required to extract coal, oil or natural gas—and buy mineral-bearing public lands for as little as $5 an acre.

A recent report by the Environmental Working Group found mining claims in Colorado have mushroomed, to 23,473 in January 2008 from 5,430 in January 2003.

‘More than 10,000 mining claims were filed on public lands last year, 80 percent of them for uranium,’ says Vince Matthews, director of the Colorado Geological Society. ‘All mineral and energy resources in the world are in very short supply. Their price has escalated. A year ago, the average price increase was 538 percent for 25 mineral resources, like gold, platinum, silver, copper, lead and zinc. Lead has increased 630 percent, copper 434 percent.’

Think there will be a downturn?

‘It's not going to go away,’ says Matthews. ‘There is no reason to slow down. China is tying up minerals all over the world. They've been doing it. The Chinese just signed a joint venture with world's largest mining company to go around the world and buy up small and medium mines, regardless of what they mine.’

Amidst the new surge, the remnants of the last rush remain.

Says Western Mining Action Project's Roger Flynn: ‘We have hundreds of miles of streams in the high country that are still being polluted by old mining facilities and tunnels and dumps.’

Mining and milling processes throughout the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries typically focused more on efficiency and expediency than environmental protection. Waste rock from the mines was often dumped outside the mine portal, and mill wastes were dumped in the nearest stream.

‘Mining was done really without regard to protecting the environment or thinking about the future,’ said Elizabeth Russell, watershed-restoration coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

One reason for that may be that few of the European settlers who migrated to Colorado during the early days of the gold rush had any intention of staying in the area. They hoped to strike it rich and take their fortunes back home with them. Many never even made it that far. Of the estimated 150,000 people who crossed the Great Plains in 1858-1859, at least one-third turned back before they ever laid eyes on the Rocky Mountains. Only about 30,000 people stayed to form the population nucleus of what would become the state of Colorado, settling in mining camps such as Denver City and Boulder City that would later develop into cities.

The mines would also form the backbone of the region's early economy. Although William Russell was the first person to discover gold in Colorado, it was John Hamilton Gregory's lode discovery in the Rockies that gave substance to the Pikes Peak gold rush. Some $85 million worth of ore, mostly in gold, was eventually excavated from the area where Gregory made his discovery.

For about 50 years, mining was the driving force behind Colorado's economy, tied to everything from agriculture to transportation. When a major economic depression hit the United States in 1893, it was the gold mines that helped keep the state's economy afloat despite depressed farm prices. The state's mining industry expanded again with the demand for raw materials caused by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. And although the Great Depression hit the state's economy hard, mining remained the one bright spot, with mineral production actually increasing during the 1930s. It wasn't until World War II, when government offices, defense plants and training camps moved to Denver and other cities that mining was finally eclipsed by other economic activities.

While Colorado's great mining boom is over, the state is still working to address the historical legacy of that boom, particularly its effects on Colorado's environment. Bruce Stover, senior project manager for the Colorado Division of

Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said the state has about 7,000 orphaned and abandoned mining sites covering an estimated 13,000 acres. Cleaning and restoring those properties, including water treatment, is expected to cost approximately $750 million, though Stover said that estimate could be off by as much as 20 percent either way.

The abandoned mines contain an estimated 23,000 hazardous features such as mine openings and shafts that the state is slowly whittling away at. Colorado closes about 300 of those features every year and has now addressed about 7,500 of them altogether, Stover said.

Without a large infusion of additional funding for hardrock mine cleanup, however, that's about all the state can do, Stover said. ‘There is no overall source of funding for hardrock mine cleanup, so that's not really getting done in an any large-scale fashion,’ he said.

Eric Huber, senior staff attorney for the Sierra Club in Boulder, said the state and EPA have been good at addressing the big problem mines, but they have been less successful in tackling the thousands of small, abandoned mines that still dot the landscape in the high country. ‘There is no systematic way of dealing with them all right now,’ he said.

All of those abandoned mines have affected the state's water quality. A 1998 study found more than 1,300 miles of Colorado streams have heavy metal contamination. Aimee Konowal of the state's Water Quality Division said as many as 168 stream segments out of 772 monitored by the agency and 25 out of 106 lakes and reservoirs could be impaired due to mining activities.

Local Efforts
The Upper Animas Watershed has an extensive history of mining dating back to the 1870s, when a U.S. Army scouting team discovered placer gold. From 1872 to 1991, when the Sunnyside mine closed, the area produced about 18.1 million tons of ore, making it one of Colorado's most productive mining regions. Nearly half of that ore — or about 8.6 million tons — was deposited into nearby streams between 1872 and about 1935.

Mining waste deposition put zinc, aluminum, cadmium, copper, lead and manganese into the streams, damaging water quality and degrading habitat. As a result, native cutthroat trout were largely extirpated from the 146 square-mile watershed, with the exception of a few tributaries.

The environmental challenges related to historic mining in the Upper Animas Watershed led the Environmental Protection Agency to consider placing the area on its National Priorities List, commonly known as Superfund. But local residents feared that a Superfund designation could harm the community's image, reduce property values and lead to higher costs and litigation.

To avoid such a designation, the community organized the Animas River Stakeholders Group in 1994. After examining 1,500 mine sites in the region, the group identified 67 priority sites that they judged to be the biggest contributors of metals in the Animas River. The group raised more than $35 million for remediation activities and more than $3 million of in-kind volunteer support to help clean up 50 of these high-priority sites.

The cleanup effort has already seen some promising results, including an overall increase in water quality and the downstream establishment of two species of trout. The project's success in reducing pollution levels has convinced the EPA not to take formal action as long as the group continues to produce significant results.

The Milsap Mill Tailings Restoration Partnership experienced similar results. The partnership has stabilized approximately 1 million cubic yards of mine tailings on a 60-acre site in the Milsap Watershed. The unstable tailings had become highly erosive, causing significant downstream damage to streams, streamside vegetation and agricultural fields over the past 80 years, as well as large dust storms in the neighboring communities.

Steve Sanchez, a natural resource specialist with the federal Bureau of Land Management, said local landowners have also been critical in efforts to clean up Kerber Creek in the historic Bonanza Mining District in the San Luis Valley. The 17-mile-long, $1.2 million project, which started in 1993, is expected to be completed in the next several years and could make Kerber the first stream to come off the state's list of impaired waters, Sanchez said.

Grassroots efforts also benefited the town of Creede. The narrow valley above the town is lined with abandoned mines, some of which date back to the 1800s. The sites continue to leach toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium and zinc, that flow into the Rio Grande valley's streams, such as Willow Creek.

Carishma Gokhale-Welch, director of the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee, said the group has cleaned up at least seven abandoned mine sites, capping the mine tailings, restoring the streams and revegetating the areas. Although Gokhale-Welch said it's still too early to tell how much that work has paid off, she noted that the group did see fish in one section of the creek last summer, which she called a step in the right direction.

The biggest hurdle remaining is cleaning up the century-old Nelson Tunnel, which Gokhale-Welch said is responsible for almost half the zinc that flows into Willow Creek. The tunnel, which was originally constructed as a drain for water and a way to haul ores from the mine shaft, is also the largest source of cadmium and lead in the watershed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gokhale-Welch said the group was worried about attempting to clean up the tunnel, because it would mean they would have to assume legal liability. Reps. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) proposed federal legislation that would allow well-intentioned groups to clean up abandoned mines under the auspices of an EPA permit and eliminate their liability if something goes wrong during the cleanup, but the bill has stalled in Congress.

‘The lack of 'good Samaritan' legislation makes it impossible for us to do anything,’ Gokhale-Welch said.
One possibility for moving the bill this year is attaching it to legislation aimed at overhauling the 1872 Mining Law. Udall spokeswoman Heather Fox said mining reform legislation could be one vehicle to move the good Samaritan bill. ‘We think it makes sense to address good Sam in that legislation, but we don't know how likely that is,’ she said.

Perhaps the most famous example of the damage caused by mining operations is the Summitville Mine in the San Juan Mountains. Using the cyanide heap leach method to remove gold from low-grade ore, the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company produced gold worth about $81 million from 1984 to 1992. But leaks of toxic metals—including copper, iron, manganese, zinc, aluminum and cadmium—from the leach pad into the Alamosa River headwaters destroyed all aquatic life in the river for more than 17 miles downstream of the mine.

EPA placed the site on the Superfund list after the company declared bankruptcy and abandoned the mine. Cleanup has cost about $210 million so far and is predicted to continue to cost $1.5 million per year for years to come.
Elyssa Rosen of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining said the Summitville disaster is a good example of why tougher regulations are needed on even modern mining practices. ‘These things are just a decade away. They're not historic problems,’ she said.

But Stuart Sanderson of the Colorado Mining Association said the state already has tough standards to safeguard ground and water quality, noting that most of the current environmental problems relate to mining practices dating back to the turn of the century. ‘Modern mining is very different. It's very stringently regulated in Colorado.’
As an example, Sanderson noted that the state's largest gold mine, the Cripple Creek and Victor gold mine, does not discharge any water, so there is no effect on water quality.

The new rush
The rush for precious metals in the Colorado hills is on. With gold prices hitting an all-time high of more than $1,000 an ounce in March, Colorado is experiencing a resurgence of the 1850s gold rush.
At least five gold mines are operating or preparing to open in the Centennial State. Among them is a planned restart of the Bates-Hunter in Central City. The Bates vein was the second lode discovered in Colorado and helped spark the 1850s gold rush. The company estimates the Bates vein alone could contain approximately 1.1 million ounces of gold and eight other veins covered by the project claims could increase that potential by a factor of two to 10.
LKA International of Gig Harbor, Wash., hopes to restart its Golden Wonder mine near Lake City, developing a new drift approximately 1,000 feet below the current workings of the mine. Since commercial production began in 1998, the Golden Wonder mine has produced nearly 134,000 ounces of gold valued at more than $45 million.
Gold isn't the only precious metal whose prices have been on the rise. Prices of molybdenum, a metal used in alloys to toughen and strengthen other metals such as steel and cast iron, have skyrocketed to $33 a pound today, from about $2 a pound in 2002.

‘There are antimony, selenium and cadmium,’ says the geological society's Matthews. ‘It doesn't matter where you look, the price has dramatically increased.’

Matthews says europium, found in Colorado, is more valuable than platinum. A metal as soft as lead, it is used in the control rods of nuclear reactors and small lasers and in the production of red phosphorus. Red phosphorus' most notable use: It produces the red on color television screens. It reportedly is the luminescent metal used in Euro bank notes to prove their authenticity.

The state, says Matthews, is rich.

‘We have significant oil fields. The world's largest titanium deposit is near Gunnison’ he says. ‘Colorado's diverse geology (contains) molybdenum, gold, one thing after another. We're very, very rich. They haven't been mined for a long time.’

With price increases that dramatic, it's little wonder that mining companies are looking to boost Colorado's production by reopening old mines and starting new ones.

In December, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. announced it would reopen that Climax molybdenum mine near Leadville, which is believed to contain the world's largest and highest grade undeveloped molybdenum deposit. The $500 million project includes the restart of open-pit mining and the construction of new mining facilities.

The mine is expected to produce 30 million pounds of molybdenum annually starting in 2010, and the company is considering a large-scale expansion of the mine that could double production to 60 million pounds annually. The mine, which first processed ore in 1918, has been shuttered since 1995.

In November, Vancouver, Canada-based Bolero Resources Corp. announced it would buy $10 million worth of land and mineral rights east of Rico that include the Silver Creek molybdenum project and other copper and gold deposits in the Pioneer Mining District. Based on drilling completed by the Anaconda Co. from 1979 through 1983, the company expects the total molybdenum deposit could be up to 1.2 billion pounds.

The resurgence of molybdenum has not been welcomed everywhere. For the past 30 years, the High Country Citizens' Alliance has led opposition to a mining operation on Mt. Emmons, arguing that a molybdenum mine would hurt the environment and economy of Crested Butte and the entire Gunnison Valley.

Steve Glazer, water director for the High Country Citizens' Alliance, said the group remains ‘very engaged’ in fighting the mine effort, despite Kobex's decision. ‘This is no end,’ he said. ‘The price of moly is too high for us to think somebody isn't going to be interested.’

Elyssa Rosen of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining said the controversy over molybdenum mining on Mt. Emmons, affectionately called 'Red Lady' by locals, is a good example of why Congress should overhaul the 1872 Mining Law. ‘The town doesn't want the mine, but the town doesn't have a say under the 1872 Mining Law,’ she said.

Dan Morse, public lands director for the High Country Citizens' Alliance, said the mining reform bill passed by the House of Representatives last year could help the group's fight by giving federal agencies the authority to deny a mine permit based on ‘undue impacts.’

But, for now, he said the group's best chance for defeating the mine lies at the local level, since state and federal agencies do not typically deny mining permit applications. Gunnison County and the town of Crested Butte have both established regulations intended to protect the area's watershed. If the mine can't meet those standards, it won't be able to move forward, he said.

Crested Butte Town Manager Susan Parker said protecting the town's water supply is one of the local government's primary responsibilities. ‘Any development in a watershed should be regulated,’ she said. ‘If you lose your water, what have you got?"

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