SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)– It’s one of the greatest environmental threats to Colorado: abandoned mines emitting toxic waste into streams, rivers and eventually our drinking water.
Now volunteers will have a much easier time helping clean up those mines. There are 7,000 abandoned mines in Colorado.
Not all of them are an environmental risk but many are with high levels of heavy metals ending up in creeks which can damage the ecosystem.
“It’s amazing to look at a backdrop like this and see the historic legacy of mining and see what was done here in Colorado and it wasn’t all positive,” said Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs.
“The loading of pollutants are enough to essentially sterilize the river. There’s nothing living, no fish, not aquatic life whatsoever and that’s not good for the ecosystem, it’s not good for people,” said an Environmental Protection Agency spokesman.
What changed to allow more people to get involved in cleaning up the abandoned mines was a policy from the EPA that states Good Samaritans can now work with the agency and volunteer to clean up the mines.
Before the policy change anyone who wanted to clean up a mine was taking responsibility for the water quality. That would potentially cost millions in insurance and legal fees.
One example is the Pennsylvania Mine in a remote area of Summit County. The mine opened in 1879 and closed in the 1940s leaving behind a mess.
That water the runs out of the mine contains high levels of zinc, aluminum and other metals. The metal contamination has been blamed on eliminating the fish habitat down stream in Peru Gulch. That creek flows into Snake River.
“Some of the mines are horrendous for the quality of our rivers and streams and sometimes that impacts drinking water as well,” said Gibbs.
The contaminants are diluted enough before the water reaches Lake Dillon which is Denver’s second largest source for drinking water.
Senator Mark Udall said volunteers will be able to help clean up sites like the Pennsylvania Mine.
“Some are already in place like volunteers for outdoor Colorado already want to do some of that work. In local communities you may see Boy Scout troops or chamber of commerce or rotary clubs,” said Udall, a Democrat representing Colorado. “Use simple technologies to soak up that zinc and cadmium and poisonous elements that go into our streams.”
“It’s really working together to hopefully solve some of these challenges,” said Gibbs.
Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat representing Colorado.