Telluride’s mining history has left an indelible stamp on the valley. The presence of the town itself is a testament to a past that brought thousands here, lured by dreams of adventure, riches and opportunity. Those people are long gone, but the physical reminders of mining practices remains in the form of beachy stretches along the San Miguel River as it wends along the Valley Floor. Those mine tailings, riddled with toxic elements such as arsenic and lead, leach into the river, a legacy that, in modern times, is being removed or capped, often at great cost.
Telluride Town Council learned at its Tuesday meeting that one such project will be completed ahead of schedule, and of another new project, which will commence next year.
This summer, town project manager Lance McDonald reported, work on the large tailings area on the northwest end of the Valley Floor should be completed by early October. The original completion time was mid-November. The ambitious project included not only capping the 23-acre Society Turn Tailings Pile No. 1, but rerouting the San Miguel to the south through a new channel that skirts the tailings area altogether and creates a natural wetlands buffer between the newly capped tailings and the river.
The $3.3 million project’s crew capped the tailings by using dirt from large berms along the river, a plan that reduced traffic along the Spur. The new channel, McDonald explained, has been cut and the river is already following its new course.
“The river is completely in its new channel,” McDonald said. “We’ve made terrific progress.”
McDonald also said that a crew of Telluride youth helped rescue a number fish that were stranded when the old channel’s water level receded. Ten to 20 fish were transported to the new channel.
The San Miguel River will be getting some additional attention “once the snow melts,” according to US Forest Service Norwood District Ranger Megan Eno. The forest service owns a wedge of land on the south side of the Valley Floor adjacent to the Boomerang Bridge. Eno told council that the forest service, in partnership with Idarado Mining Company, is working to identify the tailing areas, which will be trucked from the area. Eno also named Trout Unlimited as a project partner.
The project, which Eno said will cost “millions of dollars,” will eventually remove “all the tailings from the 100-year floodplain.”
The amount of tailings along the river through the forest service parcel is currently estimated to encompass 7,000 cubic yards of contaminated material, which will then be transported elsewhere.
“We may find more, maybe twice as much,” Eno told council.
While the disposal location has yet to be decided, officials are eyeing either the Matterhorn mill site south of Telluride, or a repository at the Idarado mill at the east end of the valley. Eno said the Matterhorn site has limited capacity and could be ruled out as San Miguel County may eventually use its adjacent land for affordable housing. Should the tailings end up at Idarado, a community discussion would need to take place to determine the best time of year for numerous trucks to trundle through town shuttling the tailings.
Eno said that while the project still has several loose ends, once the EPA assumes the delegation of authority for the project, “they tend to move quickly,” she said.
“There’s no timeframe right now as far as the hauling phase,” Eno said. “There will be a two-week concentrated period, probably at the end of the tourist season.”
Boomerang Bridge will not be used to access the south side of the river as it is doubtful it is rated for the weights it would need to bear, but instead, project engineers will erect temporary bridges. While the project is underway, Eno said the public can expect visual impacts as well as temporary limitations for recreationists on the river and along the trail.
In other council news, town manager Ross Herzog shared the results of the first sample taken from the town’s wastewater treatment plant for analysis for the presence of the COVID-19 virus. The virus, which is shed in human feces days before the onset of symptoms, can be detected at wastewater treatment plants. Public health officials can use the analysis to determine public health policy.
While this first report indicated very little in the way of shed virus matter, council agreed that precautions currently being taken to control the spread of the virus should remain in place. Public works director Paul Ruud deferred to county public health director Grace Franklin for specific interpretation of the data, but said that it is “important to keep the public behaving appropriately,” in regards to public health orders such as the wearing of face coverings and maintaining social distancing.
“(In spite of the test results) it’s imperative the public continues to protect themselves and others,” Ruud said.
The testing, which is conducted by GT Molecular out of Fort Collins, is funded by the towns of Telluride and Mountain Village, as well as San Miguel County. Greg Craig, whose initial (since-withdrawn) financial challenge match stimulated government interest in the studies, said he was encouraged to see the sampling project put in motion.
“I am very excited this program is underway so soon,” Craig said. “This partnership between Town of Telluride, Town of Mountain Village and San Miguel County will advance our knowledge of the course of Covid in the community. While we are early in the testing process, this science-based approach may eventually add to existing metrics for objective decision-making. I’m glad to have been able to help kickstart it.”
Herzog also told council that the Colorado Department of Natural Resources reported that the southwest portion of the state, including all of San Miguel County, are under D3, Exceptional Drought classification.
“It is abnormally dry in 100 percent of the state,” Herzog said.
Council on Tuesday also unanimously appointed incumbent Mark Shambaugh to another two-year term on the Historic and Architectural Review Commission, a board on which he has served since 2015, and as the board’s chair since 2017.