Thar’s gold in them thar Silverton hills; lead, zinc and a lot less trout in rivers below

Silverton Mountain, a steep and deep skiing mecca (Silverton Mountain photo).

In 2001 when Aaron Brill was gearing up to open his extreme skiing mecca of Silverton Mountain, gold was selling for $250 an ounce and the upper Animas River was meeting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aquatic life standards. Now gold is pushing $2,000 an ounce and three of four trout species no longer can live in the upper Animas because of acid drainage from abandoned gold mines north of Silverton.

According to a the Silverton Standard, water experts say four old mines are pumping 845 gallons of mine drainage per minute into Cement Creek and then the Animas River. Elevated levels of lead, zinc and other toxic minerals now justify an EPA Superfund Cleanup listing, but Brill and others worry such a designation will stigmatize the scenic San Juan Mountain town in the minds of skiers and other tourists.

TCI's David O. Williams sampling Silverton's current mother lode (Dan Davis photo).
“The image of a Superfund site can’t be understated,” Brill said at a meeting on the topic earlier this month. “We’re supportive of clean-water initiatives, but we’re not supportive of the damage that can be done from the perception of a Superfund site.”

Brill’s one-lift Silverton Mountain resort has become a popular destination for expert skiers and snowboarders to test themselves against some of the steepest and most challenging terrain in the state.

But Vail, one of the most successful ski resorts in the world, has thived near the Eagle Mine Superfund Site for years. The quality of the water in the upper Eagle River has improved dramatically since the early 1990s, when zinc, cadmium and copper from tailings piles used to make the river run orange. The Eagle River immediately below the mine still doesn’t support rainbow trout but is now home to a healthy brown trout population.

EPA officials at the Silverton meeting earlier this month said they won’t put the old gold mines on the National Priorities List (NPL) under the Superfund law without local support and Gov. John Hickenlooper signing off. The listing also doesn’t mean the EPA pays for mitigation measures; just that it will monitor the cleanup.

“The problem is worsening water quality,” said Sabrina Forrest, site assessment manager for the EPA in Denver. “There are elevated levels of metals in fish people are eating.”

One of the suggestions for cleaning up the mess near Silverton is finding a mining company willing to re-open some or all of the mines and deal with cleanup while extracting gold at today’s runaway prices.

The owner of the Gold King and Mogul mines in question, Todd Hennis of Golden, said the state dropped the ball with former owner and operator Sunnyside Gold, letting the mining company slide on water quality issues in the Gladstone area north of Silverton.

“The state of Colorado has a huge responsibility for this situation,” Hennis said, according to the Standard. “Sunnyside walked out of this district and their $5 million bond was returned.”

Hennis backs another mining company starting up operations again and extracting what he estimates is $700 million in gold still in the Gold King mine – a project he says would create 200 jobs for 20 years. Others said Sunnyside Gold’s parent company, Kinross, should be targeted for funds to build water treatment on Cement and bulkheads at the old mines to shore them up.