SUMMITVILLE — The Summitville cleanup site, between towering San Juan Mountain peaks in southwest Colorado, has cost taxpayers almost $300 million thus far. It will continue to cost an additional $2 million every year, according to site manager Mark Rudolph of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. He oversees an industrial water-cleaning plant that pulls toxins from the stream at 11,500 feet, before the high levels of dissolved heavy metals pollute downstream waterways.
At first, Summitville looks like Colorado high mountain scene. A steep snowy mountain face rises above a chuckling alpine creek.
But the face was carved out by dynamite, and the creek’s water runs florescent orange with iron and other heavy metals.
Galactic Resources, a Canadian company, operated the mine before declaring bankruptcy in 1992. The runoff from the site affected downstream waterways.
“This was brought onto taxpayers by a lack of business ethics,” says Rudolph. He wears a green sweater and subtly purple-tinted glasses.
“They take the money, and leave behind the mess.”
Galactic CEO Robert Friedland, an apparently college friend of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, paid $30 million in an out of court settlement for the cleanup of the toxic site. But taxpayers have paid almost 10 times that amount.
The company might have paid less of the bill because it was based out of Canada, according to Rudolph.
The clean water from the high alpine processing plant flows into the Alamosa River, a major source of water for the San Luis Valley.
The water treatment plant installed at the site must run indefinitely, according to Rudolph. If not, downstream agriculture and fisheries could be affected by the toxic runoff.
“At what point is clean, clean?” Rudolph says.
The reclamation of the land is mostly complete. Green grass grows over the former cyanide leaching sites. Entrepreneurs plan to run a skiing operation over the site in coming years. But the necessity of the water processing plant is undebatable, Rudolph says.
“I love the outdoors,” he says, looking over the massive silver tanks and tubes of water-cleaning machinery. “I value nature. I know I won’t get rich. But there’s more than just money.”