Almost everyone in Rio Grande County is aware that Galactic Minerals’ open pit-cyanide heap leach project at Summitville resulted in a notorious Superfund site.
But very few here have an understanding of what actually went wrong and why. A typical response to that question is, “Galactic was a bad mine operator and they let cyanide leak into the Alamosa River, which killed all of the fish.”
Let me touch on the cyanide issue up front. First, my discussions with experienced chemists, and several technical studies I’ve reviewed, indicate conclusively that sodium cyanide does not persist in the environment. It is quickly broken down into nontoxic chemicals by sunlight and air. If any cyanide solution had escaped the site, it would have been chemically changed before it could have poisoned any fish in the Alamosa River. Moreover, it seems very likely that, in the section of the river impacted by streams with names like Iron, Bitter, and Alum, as well as Wightman Fork, flowing out of Summitville’s mines, a pre-mine baseline study would have shown there was not a viable fish population. This assumption is supported by a conversation with a friend whose family has owned a cabin at Jasper for decades. She said, “We never fished the Alamosa River at Jasper; we just figured it was too polluted to have any trout in it.“
Anyone wanting a detailed accounting of the Galactic project’s failures should read Knight Piesold and Company’s report: Chronological Site History, Summitville Mine, Rio Grande County, Colorado, Vol. 1, 1993. As I recall, this report resulted from a very detailed, objective study of the situation. Or they could read A Gold Camp Called Summitville by local author Richard C. Huston.
These two documents leave no doubt that Galactic’s operational approach and hurried execution were major underlying causes of the problems. I was one of many mining professionals who provided comments at the 1993 CMLRB hearing regarding Galactic. My comments, resulting from a visit to the mine in 1986, could be summarized by this: “The Galactic project was the worst conceived, worst designed, worst engineered and worst operated large mine I’d ever been around.”
But Galactic was not the sole problem. Not by a long shot. Bechtel Civil and Minerals Inc.’s role in operation planning and design of the ore handling facility was faulty, as were the design and construction of the leach pad liner. And someone somewhere, probably not a Galactic employee in my opinion, decided that, in an area giving rise to several large streams and two rivers, evaporation would exceed precipitation!! That error alone started a long series of related problems resulting in undesirable effluents getting to the Alamosa River.
Then there’s the State of Colorado’s role in the “Galactic tragedy.” From my brief visit to the site, I concluded that the MLRB staff was not providing an appropriate level of experienced oversight of the operation. This conclusion was also reached by others who studied the operation at length, as stated in the Knight Piesold report cited above.
Even with the water surplus problem, Galactic was able to meet all the required effluent discharge limitations except for silver. Apparently the state’s silver limit was less than one part per billion, set to protect brook trout downstream in the Alamosa River. An independent laboratory found no detectable silver in the effluent; still the state refused to allow Galactic to discharge directly into Wightman Fork.
And finally, near the end, when the project was in deep trouble for not meeting effluent discharge limits, State government, likely backed by the EPA, refused to negotiate or ease effluent restrictions, giving Galactic, in my opinion, no option but to quit the project, sell available assets to cover some of its reclamation costs, and seek bankruptcy protection. Shortly after the State took over the operation, the silver limits were relaxed.
So, since the 1994 designation by the EPA, we now have a Superfund site at Summitville. The basic ongoing Superfund operation consists of neutralizing acidic, metal-bearing water flowing out of underground workings. This precipitates the undesirable metals, which are collected and deposited in a permanent containment environment. Essentially, the project has been, for years, treating the symptoms of the basic problem – acidic metal-bearing effluent, and not solving the underlying problem: percolation of rain and snowmelt down into the acidic ground above the mine area(s), forming strongly acidic ground water, which leaches out undesirable metals before exiting the ground through existing underground mine workings.
Since 1994 government agencies have spent a reported $250 million at the Galactic site. Operating costs are about $2 million per year at present; 90 percent paid by EPA and 10 percent by Colorado. In three years, Colorado will be on the hook for the entire amount. So the current outlook for the Superfund future of the project is a string of increasing costs of $2 million or more per year, stretching into the future as far as the eye can see…
But I submit that there is another – better - possibility for the future of Summitville.
First, consider this. New technologies are being implemented by mine reclamation companies at other large, high altitude mines, such as at the London Mine near Alma, Colo. and at Platoro. At these sites, the metal pollution problem is being treated in place by re-forming metal sulfides in a more stable geochemical regime, thus preventing or inhibiting metals from leaching into the ground water.
One such company is MineWater LLC, whose principal, Joe Harrington, has been interested in solving the Summitville mine water discharge problem for more than a decade. Interested readers and involved officials might want to review the TV interview of Joe onsite at the London Mine where his company has acquired management control and is now working to solve the acid mine discharge problem. It’s available at https://fxn.ws/2Nnva27.
With these new technologies, and perhaps with new people involved in both the state and county governments, I sense that there is an opportunity to change direction regarding the Summitville District, and I urge the state and Rio Grande County to reconsider their outlook on Summitville and invite several of these mine reclamation companies to propose a new solution for curing the Summitville water discharge problem.
Here’s a potential bonus for a different Summitville outlook. It is logical to assume that, considering Galactic’s poor operating procedure, they may have left in the very large heap leach pile, enough recoverable gold and silver content to justify reprocessing the material and, perhaps, mining and processing other ore from the district. This might be accomplished by further heap leaching at a lower site, or perhaps by in-plant cyanide recovery or other extraction methods. This economic potential will become even greater if gold prices rise substantially. And it would provide a significant number of highly-paid, locally-hired jobs for mining and processing operations.
This potential might not become a reality, but at the very least, the existing heap leach material should be drilled and tested; and other potential ore sources should be examined as well.
An important benefit of a redevelopment of Summitville could be much improved water quality in the Alamosa River aimed at producing an excellent trout fishery.
Bottom line, what I’m proposing here is necessarily speculative in nature; but it offers a reasonable shot at a Summitville future that is measurably better – perhaps very much better - than its future as a continuing Superfund site. Again, I strongly urge the state and Rio Grande County to revise their thinking about Summitville as a continuing Superfund site, and invite several mine reclamation companies to propose new ways to cure the mine water discharge problem, leading to the removal of the superfund designation in the process.
Charles Spielman is a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines with a BS degree in geological engineering. His 50-year career in the mining industry involved acquisition, exploration, development, and/or mining of uranium, coal, oil shale and precious metals. His geotechnical company operated a successful cyanide leach test operation in Nevada in 1982. He is a fourth-generation Monte Vistan and currently serves as president of the Monte Vista Economic Development Corporation; he also represents industrial water users on the Rio Grande Basin Round Table. He invites comments and questions at [email protected] or by mail at 2705A Sherman Ave, Monte Vista, CO 81144.