Expansive Clean-up, Expensive Water

SUMMITVILLE – The Summitville mine superfund site sits high in the alpine tundra above the San Luis Valley. Blanketed in snow, the peak once swarmed by gold miners looks peaceful. A small stream cutting down the slope stains the surrounding snow a reddish orange, like a scar which never fully healed.

Current plans for the $360 million superfund cleanup indicate that it never will.

The state of Colorado is on the hook for an estimated $2 million each year – forever, says superfund project manager Mark Rudolph, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

“This is something that was brought onto the taxpayers by a company with poor business ethics,” Rudolph says. Summitville Consolidated Mining Incorporated, a Canadian company, conducted pit mining in the area in the area until the mid 1990’s.

The mining company was accused of letting cyanide spill into the nearby creek, filed for bankruptcy just days before the Environmental Protection Agency was alerted to the state of the site, says Rudolph. The EPA deployed an emergency response team to investigate cyanide spill along with the leaching and subsequent runoff of heavy metals from the exposed face of the pit mine.

“I feel like they got away with a lot more than they settled for,” says Rudolph. The ensuing two-decade clean up included the construction of a water treatment plant along with a number of topographic alterations to the mountain. Most of the cleanup dollars came from the federal government. But now, Colorado taxpayers will have to shoulder the financial burden of running and maintain the site.

This is because, instead of fixing the pollution problem at the source, the restoration plan only aimed to treat the water post-contamination.

“At what point is clean, clean?” Rudolph asks. “The problem will continue indefinitely.”

The Summitville mine disaster is one on a laundry list of water problems in the San Luis Valley. Plagued by drought and years of over consumption, the cost of water is rising for southern Colorado’s farmers and ranchers is now affecting their bottom line.

“The return on your investment in agriculture is so small,” says Cleave Simpson, manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

Newly imposed well fees, designed to discourage farmers from over extracting groundwater, have put a premium on surface water.

Water flow from the Summitville mine site goes to a small reservoir on the west side of the valley. The multi-million dollar clean up shows how much each drop is worth to these families, says Simpson.

“We’ve made progress,” he says. “But a lot of what we’re doing feels like we’re just rearranging chairs on the titanic.”

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