Home / World News / Otter spotted eating trout at Colorado toxic mine site raises hope for new kind of cleanup – The Denver Post

Otter spotted eating trout at Colorado toxic mine site raises hope for new kind of cleanup – The Denver Post

RICO — An otter popped up in the once-toxic water.

Its appearance last winter — devouring a trout — has ignited hopes around an experiment to transform a scarred, mining wasteland into a naturalistic mountain valley.

This re-engineering along headwaters of the Dolores River requires replanting wetlands with native grasses and laying in soil to mimic natural processes — an innovative approach that may be deployed more widely across the water-challenged West, where tens of thousands of toxic mines foul rivers and streams. So far, the experiment is working, removing fish-killing zinc, manganese linked to birth deformities and cancer-causing cadmium from muck flowing from the Argentine Mine complex uphill from Rico.

“Mining is what brought communities to life at the turn of the 19th century, but now residents and visitors would like to see these scars restored as much as possible — especially focusing on water cleanup,” San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said from her perch in Telluride, 22 miles north of the mess. “For many of these areas, human intervention is required to initiate the cleanup. But planning, which ultimately allows native vegetation, restored natural floodplains and the engineering skills of beavers to assist with the cleanup is generally preferred when possible. In the end, we will find it is more effective.”

This is the historic "main" street or Glasgow Ave on December 12, 2017 in Rico, Colorado. Rico is an incorporated small town in Dolores County. It was settled in 1879 as a silver mining center in the Pioneer Mining District. The town functions as a historic and tourism site. The population was 265 at the 2010 census, up from 205 at the 2000. Many historic buildings still exist that remain from the mining boom of the 1880's. In 1892, Rico was in its heyday. Its population had soared to 5,000 people. The community was supported by 23 saloons, 3 blocks of red­light district, 2 churches, 2 newspapers, a theater, boarding houses, 14 first class hotels.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

This is the historic “main” street or Glasgow Ave on December 12, 2017 in Rico, Colorado. Rico is an incorporated small town in Dolores County. It was settled in 1879 as a silver mining center in the Pioneer Mining District. The town functions as a historic and tourism site. The population was 265 at the 2010 census, up from 205 at the 2000. Many historic buildings still exist that remain from the mining boom of the 1880’s. In 1892, Rico was in its heyday. Its population had soared to 5,000 people. The community was supported by 23 saloons, 3 blocks of red­light district, 2 churches, 2 newspapers, a theater, boarding houses, 14 first class hotels.

The cleanup near Rico stands out at a time when Colorado’s track record has been less than stellar in dealing with repeat mine disasters such as Summitville, where an ill-issued state permit left taxpayers perpetually burdened after mine owner Robert Friedland fled to Canada, and the Gold King, where an EPA mistake highlighted degradation of the Animas River. A state government survey completed last year found more than 140 toxic flows still unaddressed, poisoning more than 1,800 miles of waterways.

Wildlife, including river otters, may be reviving in Rico because multiple factors favor environmental recovery.

First, federal agencies enforced laws. The Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 issued an emergency order compelling action to stop contamination of Dolores headwaters after state regulators and mine owners failed to get a grip. Then, EPA officials swiftly identified and enlisted a private company legally responsible for the mess — something agency officials haven’t done at other sites, including the Gold King Superfund district, where a potentially responsible corporation is fighting the EPA in court.

And the company, Atlantic Richfield — now owned by global energy giant BP — resolutely embarked on a cleanup, investing tens of millions of dollars. This compares with less than $5 million that the EPA has mustered for cleanup of the 48-site Gold King district above Silverton. For another Superfund disaster that the EPA declared in 2008 in Creede, federal funds have been so scarce that cleanup has barely begun.

In 2012, Atlantic Richfield contractors at Rico faced rising water inside mine tunnels that threatened a ruinous blowout. The St. Louis Tunnel, within a few hundred yards of the Dolores River, had collapsed and was oozing as much as 1,300 gallons a minute of toxic muck. A lime water treatment plant installed to neutralize sulfuric acid in the flow, churning out thousands of cubic yards a year of waste solids, wasn’t working. (The acid, private contractors later determined, is mostly neutralized by natural calcium deposits inside the tunnel before the muck flows out.) Cleanup crews also had to deal with eroding, unlined tailings ponds where rain and melting snow leached toxic metals into the river.

“The Dolores was pretty severely impacted for a number of miles downstream of the mine effluent. There was no natural reproduction of trout and the density of trout was depressed,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jim White, whose agency continues to stock the river with fish.

The innovative cleanup by Atlantic Richfield modernizes the standard approach of installing water treatment plants in the high country along with bulkhead plugs to try to control leaks. Contractors scooped out and lined the old ponds, planted grasses interspersed with stones and put in a sediment mix of manure, hay, alfalfa and woodchips — all aimed at filtering out toxic metals.

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