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Western Slope Resource Reporting: A Mining Solution to an Environmental Problem

Chris Marcinek


It’s been over twenty seven years since mining operations came to a halt at the Camp Bird Mine near Ouray. But if you go up to the mine at ten thousand feet, you’ll see a lot of activity.

When Caldera Mineral Resources bought the mine out of bankruptcy, they voluntarily agreed to work with the EPA to help keep contaminated mine waste from getting into nearby creeks.

I met up with Marty McComb – the On-Scene Coordinator for the EPA – to learn more about this mine reclamation project that began last August.

MCCOMB: “The overall goal of the site, as you can tell, these creeks are running right between all these historic tailings, and there’s a lot of it. So we’re trying to keep the tailings out of the creek, and we’re kind of doing that in two ways. One, we’re trying to pull the tailings back away from the creek, give it more room to flow in flood conditions. Right now, it’s just sort of actively eroding those tailings.”

Credit Chris Marcinek

The tailing piles that Marty is talking about look like giant sand dunes – but instead of the normal tan color of a sand dune – the piles are unnaturally gray. The EPA tested soil samples from the Camp Bird tailing piles in 2015 and found levels of lead, arsenic, and manganese that exceeded the EPA’s standards for industrial soil. And in water samples collected downstream of the tailing piles, they found levels of zinc nearly double Colorado’s standards for surface water.

This reclamation project needs a lot of material to cap the tailing piles and reinforce the toe of the piles. The original plan was to make improvements to part of a popular jeep road and truck in materials from Upper Camp Bird Mine, but that idea didn’t sit well with locals in Ouray.

Mccomb: “In order to get to it, we were going to need to rebuild part of the road going up Imogene Pass.  And that was very… I won’t say controversial, but a lot of the feedback we got from the jeep operators, from the local commissioners, from a lot of the locals is they just didn’t want to change the character of the recreation that was going on out here, and I think we really respect that.”

So the mining company came up with a creative solution.

MCCOMB: “We’re using controlled explosives to really make room in the creek, where also you’ll see we’re having to dig that channel out at the top at the toe of the slope.  It really just helps us generate a lot of material on site. We’re going to need a lot of riprap and rock for the creeks, for the structures on the side of the creeks, the structures in the creeks.”

Sourcing the material on-site is saving the mining company an estimated $400,000. And it’s also reducing their carbon footprint since they won’t have to burn fuel to truck-in material from a remote site.

Credit chris

We walk along the slope of a tailing pile with Mike Thompson, project manager for Caldera Mineral Resources. We’re a few feet from the confluence of Imogene, Sneffels, and Canyon Creeks, and gray tailing piles surround us on nearly all sides. He says that when the project is finished, the confluence will be four times wider to accommodate high-flow events.

Once the tailing piles are capped, the final phase of the project is to re-vegetate  the tailing piles with native seed.

THOMPSON: “We’ll have a flood plain carved through here, accommodate the hundred year event so there won’t be any erosion coming off of this into Imogene.”

Mike says that, in a few years, he hopes it’ll be a wetland riparian habitat.

Ashley Bembenek is the technical coordinator with Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership.

BEMBENEK: “I was really impressed by how comprehensive the planning effort was and how well the EPA and the company seemed to be working together.”

The primary goal of the project is to stabilize the slopes of the tailing piles to prevent catastrophic failure during high-flow events. But Ashley thinks it might also help reduce the contaminant level in Canyon Creek.

In particular, not having fine grain tailing material eroding into the river should help improve habitat for aquatic macro invertebrates, so insects like stoneflies, mayflies, caddisflies.”

And for the miners working on the reclamation project at the Camp Bird Mine, it’s more than just a paycheck. To them – it’s personal.

MCCOMB: “With Mike running this and having all the local crews here, these guys are really invested in what they’re doing out here. You can see the pride in the decisions they make, the pride they put into it each day.”

For Western Slope Resources Reporting, I’m Chris Marcinek.