SILVERTON, Colo. - The Sunnyside Mine near here is an odd place for marking progress. The mine offers gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc, but has a treacherous history.
Different companies have tried to make it work since 1874 and have shut it down repeatedly due to market declines and problems such as groundwater flooding in. The most recent owner, Sunnyside Gold Corp., a subsidiary of Echo Bay Mines, took over in 1985 and promptly took a beating.
Because the mine was sending pollution into a creek, and thus into the Animas River, the company built containment and settling ponds and operated a water-treatment plant. Almost immediately, the ore body the company was mining tapered off, and the operation became uneconomic.
A hundred years ago, the company would have walked away with a shrug, public opinion and the environment be damned. That's how the mountains around Silverton became pocked with 2,000 old anonymous mines and mills, many of which drain into the river and make it so polluted that trout have a hard time reproducing for 50 miles downstream.
Instead, as an indication of a new era, the company got together with the local community and state and federal agencies, everyone trying for a spirit of cooperation. Out of it has come a strategy for the gradual healing of such impacted watersheds around the West.
"We really got everybody involved," says Bill Simon, who could loosely be called the director of the Upper Animas Stakeholders Group - the first stakeholders group focused on abandoned mines.
The group coalesced as the mining company announced its shut-down. In particular, the company wanted to close its water-treatment plant, plug the mine's drains and win release from liability for any further pollution. Despite the plugs, water from the mine, carrying acid and metals, would likely emerge in countless seeps and springs. Yet the company's position was that any further pollution would be nature's fault: The mountains generate a fair amount even without any mining. Pollution also comes from other old mines that are in worse shape than Sunnyside. Instead of declaring war, the locals on every side of the many issues worked out a strategy.
First, they agreed on the need for basic information. So they set up a system of water sampling, with environmentalists, agency staffers, students and shopkeepers going into the field.
"We're taking samples together, so we're not arguing over what the samples are," says Simon, a botanist and former county commissioner who is the group's watershed coordinator. "We're learning together as we go along, figuring out where the biggest problems are."
Then, beginning in 1994, the group met once a month to wrestle with the data and feel out the next steps. After some back-and-forth between lawyers for the state and the company, a consent decree was signed: The company can plug the mine and shut down the treatment plant, and as long as the water quality in the river doesn't get worse over five years of continued sampling, the company has no more liability.
Most notably, to try to compensate for any pollution the shutdown causes in seeps and springs, the company is cleaning up portions of about eight other old mines, capping tailings and plugging an old mine portal.
"This sets a precedent nationwide," says Simon. "In effect, we're rewriting the regulations to allow partial cleanup, and the company can go to these other companies' sites and clean them up partially with no liability there, either. Third-party cleanups - that's going to be the key to reclamation of these abandoned mines."
The stakeholders' group also surveyed and ranked six more old mines that are leaking pollution, agreeing that five need addressing as soon as possible; the sixth, nicknamed "White Death" because of the color of the aluminum in the water there, will be ignored for now. "It can't be addressed with today's technology and economy," says Simon.
The EPA and other agencies have supported the stakeholders group with some funding, but mostly the company has been paying. The company estimates it'll spend $22 million on reclamation, far more than it made on mining.
"It's good for the mining industry, in that there's a mechanism for avoiding perpetual liability," says Larry Perino, the company's on-site reclamation manager. "It's good for the state (and the public) because it has the potential to improve water quality."
Peter Butler, director of a local environmental group, Friends of the Animas, expresses cautious support. If the plugs in the mine blow out years from now, as plugs in other mines sometimes do, or if anything else goes wrong, the public may end up paying for that massive cleanup: "It's a huge experiment."