Complex situations are naturally confusing, and this is one of those that, according to every artist I interview, "is a bit difficult to wrap one's head around," as artist Linda Wysong puts it. The Ute and Ule veins were discovered in 1871 ("Ule" -- "Ulay" -- is a mispronunciation of Ouray, the famous Ute chief), and since then, the mine has gone through many owners, both local and international. A hundred miles of tunnel were dug, the river was dammed, flumes were built, the (mainly Italian) miners went on strike and were fired, nearby Lake City boomed to a population of 6,000 in 1876 and then shrank to its current population of about 400.
At least $10 million worth of silver and lead was extracted between 1874 and 1900. The site's current owner, Washington-based LKA International, a natural resources development company, has never mined here, although it did use the mill for a short while, after buying it in 1983 as part of a package with another gold mine still operating in the area.
And thus sits an old mine, abandoned tailings and all.
And that's where things get messy. When water flows over the exposed mineral-laden rock in and around the mines, it dissolves zinc, cadmium, lead and other metals, creating acid. The contaminated water then dumps into nearby streams. So-called acid mine drainage, most of it from abandoned boom-time relics, pollutes an estimated 12,000 miles of streams throughout the West. The federal Bureau of Land Management and the state are studying various options for cleaning up the Ute-Ule property; the timing, cost and responsibility for cleanup are all yet to be determined. The BLM and the state did a $1.2 million cleanup of tailings piles on adjacent land in 2009, but the main site remains toxic. The environmental study on one half of the area (the "town section") reveals some lead and arsenic, but overall it's pretty clean, and probably only about $70,000 of remediation will be required. The other section (the "mill section"), however, is another story entirely -- the tailings pile and pit hold 150 years of accumulated pollutants. Last winter, an avalanche backed up the creek flowing through the mill section, which got alarmingly close to the tailings pile.
Meanwhile, LKA International offered to donate both mine and ghost town to the county, some 180 acres of land. It's a gift that, understandably, the county has been reluctant to accept without first coming up with an affordable plan for mine restoration and stabilization. As Hinsdale County Commissioner Stan Whinnery says, "We want to know what fleas come with the dog."
Besides hiring an engineer to tackle the problem, the county started a collaboration with Colorado Art Ranch, which can be briefly described as a nomadic interdisciplinary arts organization dedicated to fostering creative problem solving. The county's act was as risky as mining itself -- an act of hope and trust, and a leap of faith. The nonprofit Art Ranch, which was formed in 2005 and has hosted public forums and artist residencies in various Colorado towns, assembled the "Hardrock Revision Team" -- seven artists who came to Lake City for a month. It provided food and housing; grants and donations paid for some of the artists' time and for the many specialists the group hired: an archaeologist, a biologist, an engineer, a geologist, a hydrologist and a mediator.
The artists met with the specialists, they researched, they brainstormed, they gathered in large and small groups. They made posters, a slideshow, diagrams, and a five-foot-wide model of the mine site, constructed from old cardboard boxes and local scrap. When someone suggested a wind harp, they researched harps; when someone suggested phyto-remediation, they got in touch with a lot of experts; and when hydropower came up, the artists looked into whether it was feasible. (It is, and they're recommending it.) Grant Pound, the Art Ranch's executive director, notes that they didn't get weekends off as promised.
This project is emphatically not about outsiders coming in and telling a small town what to do. Collaboration is the only way to go, Pound says: "Frankly, it would be stupid to not include the community; all this would feel like a frivolous exercise."
Lake City, like many small mountain towns, is a mix of old-timers and newcomers, lefties and righties, artists and miners, some with a foot in both worlds. "Involving the community helped direct the artists to focus on things that are possible," says Pound, "and forced them to consider certain parameters -- for example, the heritage, rural economic development, tourism, aesthetics, community, and safety." That's one reason he and the rest of the Hardrock Revision team met with a cross-section of the community once a week -- a business owner, a rancher, a miner, a community developer, a long-term resident, a short-term resident, and so on. The group conducted informal interviews, too, at coffeehouses, bars, and on the sidewalk.
They even salvaged an old Servel refrigerator door from the site itself and plunked it into the meeting room, where it accumulated (as fridge doors tend to do) ideas and miscellany from the community, scribbled on taped-on bits of paper:
Family trees of immigrants
that worked in mine
Grow mushrooms in open adits
Project bad movies down the mineshaft so that they disappear into oblivion
Create Scientist-in-Residence Program
Every local I spoke to was in favor of Hardrock Revision's ideas -- from Marian Hollingsworth, the president of the Downtown Improvement and Revitalization Team (DIRT) to George Hurd, who has served as the mine's caretaker for 40-some years, and owns and operates the tourist attraction Hardtack Mine right down the road. "In a few years, that place is gonna be completely rotted out," he tells me. "If you let that place go, you can't replace it. If someone's gonna save it, now is the time."