By Ruthanne Johnson
RIO GRANDE COUNTY— On Saturday, June 30, the Summitville Superfund site in Rio Grande County opened its doors for public tours. About 120 people took advantage of the tour, hailing from states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, Nevada, Wisconsin and Colorado.
Tours included the mining site, water treatment plant and lower Summitville townsite, where miners and their families once lived. The site represents three phases of mining: placer (late 1800s), hard rock (1930s) and open pit (1980s).
The event was the culmination of several years of collaborative effort between Rio Grande County, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Public Health and the Environment. The tour represented a reopening of the wild areas back to the public, said Rio Grande County Commissioner Karla Shriver, who has been heading up the public access part of the project. The county is currently seeking a historic heritage site designation from the state.
Just the drive up to the old Summitville mining town on County Road 13 west of Del Norte is enough to take your breath away. The high-elevation views (about 11,400 feet) seem to go on forever and the wildflowers grow thick, even in this 2018 drought year: Indian paint brush, purple aster, bluebell and cinquefoil among others. The surrounding peaks include Silver Mountain, Summit Peak and Grayback Mountain, which sits majestically across from the Superfund site with a radio tower on top connecting cleanup workers back to civilization.
The Superfund site is the result of open-pit mining in the mid 1980s under the Canadian-based mining company Galactic Resources Ltd., which began its operation in a remote, high-elevation area south of South Fork covering about 550 acres. The company used a new technique to extract the gold from otherwise uneconomic ore that involved cyanide. A cyanide spill leaked chemicals into the Alamosa River causeing fish kills in the creek and Terrace Reservoir, which serves the San Luis Valley’s agricultural communities.
In 1994, the U.S. government declared the mine a Superfund cleanup site and has since spent some $250,000,000 in public funds for cleanup. In 2011, the state built a new water treatment plant on site.
The day’s tours were led by Superfund site project managers Mark Rudolph and Mary Boardman, taking folks near the open pit areas and to drainage ditches that route unclean water into a holding pond. From the holding pond, water is then routed through the water treatment plant for rigorous cleaning that includes separating sludge from fluid, a pressing process, stabilization through additives such as lime before finally being released into nearby Wightman Creek.
“This site is one of the unfortunate legacies of open pit mining,” said tour leader Rudolph. “Right now, the ESPA takes care of about 90 percent of the operating costs and Colorado pays for about 10 percent.” In 2021, he adds, the state will take over the operating and maintenance costs to the tune of about $2 million a year.
Despite the visible scars from decades of mining that gouged out huge swaths of earth and rock, the surrounding landscape is some of the most beautiful around. Rudolph said it’s been positive to bring awareness to the different mining eras and not hide mistakes from the past. “If it isn’t grown, its mined. It’s one of those necessary things, and it’s good to have this site here so we can learn from our mistakes.”
For Shriver, the Summitville project is one of her crowning achievements as Rio Grande County commissioner. The project even sparked her campaign phrase of “turning a dead asset into a working asset.”
“The county was forced to take this property from the bankruptcy court,” said Shriver. For a while, the public couldn’t get near the site, which meant much of the backcountry was inaccessible to a lot of folks. Now the area enjoys frequent use and is well on its way to becoming part of Colorado’s heritage tour program. There is a picnic pavilion on site for public use and historic markers offering insights into the mining history and geology of the area.
You can hike to the upper and lower mining towns that had saloons, butchers, bakers, a post office and dozens of family homes. “At its peak, the population was upwards of 1,500 people living here,” said archaeologist Angie Krall with the U.S. Forest Service. Krall led the town portion of the tour.
Krall added that visitors should dress in warm layers, “The average temperature up here is only about 31 degrees.” Also keep an eye out for wildlife. Rudolph said he has seen badger, marmot, elk, mule deer and mountain lion. “One day, I spotted a lynx on the other side or Grayback mountain,” Rudolph said.
The Superfund site, explains Shriver, was one of the release areas for lynx.