SUMMITVILLE- The historic mine here, sits 12,000 feet elevation with open scars from over a century of mining. Like thousands of abandoned mines around western Colorado, the remanences of the boom and bust gold rush are crippled mine camp houses and informative plaques about mining’s glory days.
The land was first used by the Ute tribe. The government later took 3.7 million acres, about 5,780 square miles, of this tribal land through the Brunot Agreement for the purpose of mining the region. Summitville quickly grew into a gold and silver mine which went through a series of booms and busts, but ultimately remained operational until the 1990s
Many companies and claims contributed to the mining, but Canada based Galactic Resources stands out. Galactic began a large-scale open pit operation covering 550 acres. The company used a new treatment technique in which they used a sodium cyanide solution to leach gold and silver from the ore. This was a relatively new technique. In 1991, the state government inspector found that the cyanide leaked through the heap leach pad into a creek and eventually into the Alamosa River. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent out emergency responders. The EPA eventually ran a federal clean up spending $155 million on the site for detoxification. The chairman of Galactic, in the end after legal battles, paid $30 million in a settlement.
The mine still leaks rusty orange highly acidic water into the tributaries which meet up with the Alamosa River. But the Colorado government diverts the mine’s runoff to $18 million treatment plant. Colorado must pay $2 million a year to run the plant that detoxifies the water before it contaminates the waters downstream.
Mark Rudolph, site manager of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said he sees potential to use the former mining land in new ways. Rio Grande County will own much of the land surrounding the mine and plans to the develop the area in the future.
“Superfund doesn’t want to preclude future uses of property. They like to see properties redeveloped”
The Anaconda Superfund site, a former copper smelter, in Montana has been redeveloped as a golf course. They’re utilizing the contaminated metal ore sand as pits while retaining historical elements from the former mine.
Rudolph said he would like to see winter and summer use of the area with minimal impact to the environment. Operations such as a snow cat ski facility or a summer camp would be ideal for the area, he said.
“Moving forward, I’m trying to help the county identify things that will benefit them, things that will benefit the site, and things that will benefit the general public.”