Paul Peronard isn’t the type of guy you’d expect to work for the EPA. Barrel-chested with thick forearms and a whistle so sharp it can silence a room of 50, he looks more like a guy you’d find swinging a mattock deep in a mine, not topside trying to plug one with concrete. But that’s what he’s been doing for years in the mountains of Colorado: filling in old mines, treating the water that flows out of them or doing whatever he can to stop contaminants from reaching our waterways. On Thursday, he was joined by his cohort Jeff Graves from the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety — who’s been working on old mines for 16 years — for a tour of the Pennsylvania Mine cleanup eight miles west of Keystone.
“None of these sites are easy fixes,” Graves said. “Each one is like a puzzle you have to solve, and you only have three months a year to work on them up here because of the weather.”
The two men have taken point on the Pennsylvania Mine cleanup, a group effort involving a staggering number of players that together form the Snake River Task Force: Trout Unlimited, Summit County Open Spaces, the U.S. Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife, Denver Water and on and on. Representatives from this smattering of groups, along with local residents, gathered at the Keystone Policy Institute Early Thursday for a tour of the latest engineering efforts at the mine.
For decades, the Penn has been dumping heavy-metal laden water into Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River. Its caverns act like a funnel, channeling groundwater through mineral-rich sections of rock and dumping it into the creek. The runoff isn’t dangerous to humans but can have devastating ecological impacts. In 2007, a storm surge sent discolored water far down the Snake into Keystone and caused a massive fish kill. Trout stocks there have yet to recover.
Before then, the Penn Mine was everyone’s problem and nobody’s problem: even though the mine’s pollution had been common knowledge since the 1980s, a mind-boggling patchwork of mining claims, government jurisdictions and agency responsibilities in the area meant no one group took the initiative. After the 2007 surge, however, things started to come together.
“It can be a little difficult working with so many different groups,” said Graves. “Everyone has different priorities and ideas about what should be done. But without all these partners, it would be impossible.”
The Penn Mine lies up a dirt road that follows Peru Creek. Along the way, you can see what drew prospectors up this valley: the rocks in the creek are a deep orange, caked with Iron. Every now and then, you can see a natural spring seeping mineral-laced water from unexploited seams. Even if it weren’t for all the mining, upper Peru Creek would still be somewhat contaminated due to the area’s geology.
Just up the road from a big mess of logs that used to be an ore mill, the tour came to a massive culvert sticking from the side of Decatur Mountain. A yellow sign mounted on its barred metal doors read: “THIS MINE WILL KILL YOU!”
“I’m surprised no one’s stolen that yet,” chuckled Peronard.
Orange water still trickles from under the culvert, but it now seeps into the groundwater long before reaching Peru Creek, a big improvement from the stream of iron-laden water that used to flow directly into it. By installing two bulkheads — concrete plugs about 20 feet thick — in one of the main mine shafts, the team reduced the flow of toxic water by about 80 percent. Pressure sensors indicate that the bulkhead is now holding back a 160-foot wall of water. At first blush it sounds like a recipe for a huge blowout, but Graves assures the audience huddled around the culvert that it’s designed to withstand at least 1,000 feet of water. In fact, the bulkheads all but ensure that another surge like the one in 2007 will never happen again.
“There are 80 to 100 mines in this area, and obviously we can’t clean them all up,” said Peronard. “So we ask, ‘where’s the bang for the buck? What improvements can we expect?’ With this mine, we’ve gotten a big runoff reduction for a relatively small investment.”
Char Bloom, who has lived on the Snake River in Keystone since 1985, came on the tour because she was concerned about the color of the river and thought it might have something to do with mine pollution.
“The past few years, the water has been very cloudy and iridescent green, and it’s never been like that before,” she said. “There are kids swimming in it and there’s no signage warning about it.”
A man who works for the U.S. Geological Survey assured her that its extremely unlikely that anything in the river is harmful to humans, although it certainly is to fish. As for the change in color, he said it was likely due to flooding in the past couple of years that has disturbed river and creek beds, kicking up mostly harmless sediments and sending them downstream.
“That was a really good explanation, and it made me feel a lot better,” said Bloom, who reasoned that it was probably the Montezuma flood in 2014 that was responsible.
“I thought the tour was fascinating,” said Margaret Greene, who also lives in Keystone. “It’s the neatest thing how they were able to explain how sometimes the water can look so different.”
Despite the progress they’ve made in a just a few years, the Snake River Task Force isn’t done with the Penn Mine just yet. By the end of the summer, they hope to finish a third bulkhead on a higher level of the mine. Next summer, they plan on drilling wells above the sections of mine they’ve flooded to inject water treatment agents.