ONCE UPON A TIME
This is a story that began many millions of years ago. The terrain that would one day be called Colorado was carpeted by a lush rainforest as prehistoric seas drained out of the region. Allosaurus, a cousin of T-rex weighing 4 tons, roamed the land. Tropical palm trees slowly gave way to sequoia forests with trees reaching up to 17 feet in diameter. Eventually, rhinoceros and giant mammoths would amble across the region. Humans were not yet even a twinkle in the eye of evolution.
But far beneath the lush green surface, drastic changes were bubbling in the belly of the earth. Tectonic plates collided, pushing up the ancestral Rocky Mountains. Periods of heavy volcanic activity followed during which volcanoes sprouted along the spine of the mountains, violently belching ash and lava into the valleys. As the volcanoes cooled, the pools of magma deep inside shrank, causing the collapse of the volcanoes into calderas and bowls.
As this volcanic activity was busy dramatically shaping the landscape into the rugged mountains that would one day be known as the San Juans, a curious detail was taking place deep within the rock as the volcanic cauldrons simmered. As mineral-rich magma from Earth’s core erupted skyward, it seeped into cracks in the rock as it went. The red-hot lava then cooled in the cracks and mineral deposits hardened into solid metals. Glistening veins of gold and silver, hidden from light and the insatiable desires of the future species homo sapiens, sat encased in rock for millions of years, as though patiently waiting for their next chapter of life to begin.
And they came to Ophir, and fetched from thence gold. 1 Kings 9:28
On a cold day in March of 1903, Charles S. Newton glanced up at the craggy peaks of the Ophir Needles. Perhaps a smile played across his lips as he thought about the comfortable life that awaited him in Boston, where he would soon be headed with his wife Laura, the schoolteacher in the nearby town of Ophir. It had not been an easy job, managing the Carribeau-Montezuma mines; overseeing the extraction of thousands of tons of gold- and silver-rich ore; surviving bitter winters and unpredictable snow slides. The mine, situated approximately one mile west of the Town of Ophir on the northern slope of Yellow Mountain, was the largest employer of men in the village. Over the years, the Carribeau and Montezuma Mining Company had employed hundreds of workers who ventured into the dark bowels of the mines working in shifts around the clock. Year-round they blasted rock, hauled carts of bounty through the dark tunnels. They sent the best of the resulting ore over imposing Ophir Pass to Silverton, where it could be further processed to extract valuable metals. As the mine’s superintendent, Newton had spent nearly two decades in the harsh conditions of the mining camp (though not so harsh as the conditions endured by the miners themselves, who sometimes did not live to tell their tales).
Now it had paid off. In early March, Newton and his associates had closed the deal to sell the mining company to a group of New England capitalists who owned the Yellow Mountain Mining Company. He had just received a remittance of $50,000, the first payment of a rumored $350,000. Over his many years overseeing the Carribeau and Montezuma mines, he had been witness to many fluctuations in the industry. There was the wildly prosperous year of 1891, when the Carribeau mine had reported record high earnings in silver for the year. There was the silver panic of 1893 when prices crashed, causing the mines to shutter temporarily. Throughout his tenure, Newton had presided over years when up to 100 men worked year-round in the mines, and other years when they employed just one or two dozen. Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall, or perhaps he was tired of living among the unrefined hoi polloi or under the thumb of the severe alpine weather. Perhaps he just wanted to retire and spend the rest of his days in the comfort of a well-appointed home in Boston, smoking cigars and swapping stories with New England gentry.
We will likely never understand the emotional lives of men like Charles Newton or the early Ophir miners. As the 20th century progressed, the mining industry waned and ultimately shut down entirely.
The mines were abandoned and the land was left to continue the story.
Ophir was saved by the growing ski industry and avoided the ghost-town fate that befell many mining towns. Yet mining’s legacy lived on, in the form of orange-colored sludge lining the creeks and rivers near the mines, waters laced with a cocktail of heavy metals, and toxic piles of mine tailings scattered across the land. The men and their carts of precious metals were long gone, but new residents now began to read the story of the troubled land and wonder how best to write the next chapter of Ophir’s story and its decaying mines.
By the mid-1990s, local residents and environmental officials had identified problematic mine sites in Ophir and began to formulate plans to remediate the land. By the early 2000s, various agencies, including the Forest Service, the EPA, San Miguel County, the Town of Ophir and private landowners, were working on addressing the biggest sources of heavy metals contamination, including the Carribeau Mine.
In 2005, Harley Brooke-Hitching bought the property along the south side of the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River, acquiring the stretch of land immediately below the old Carribeau millsite.
On a crisp bluebird morning in early November, not long after the season’s first snow, this reporter drove the mile from Ophir to Brooke-Hitching’s house, to talk with her about her nearly 15-year saga remediating the land.
As we sat at the kitchen table, Brooke-Hitching recalled the state of the land when she first arrived on the property.
“It was absolutely beautiful, but it was yellow,” she reflected. “There were tailings everywhere, but over the years things had grown on it. There was a huge forest, and a pond, and it was really, really beautiful. But it was contaminated. So I worked with the state and did about $40,000 of reclamation on my own, but I just couldn’t continue. It would’ve taken a lot more money.”
She described the yellow-orange muck that oozed along the banks of the Howard Fork, which ran through her property. She spent countless hours scraping back the muck to the healthier soil below, pulling it away from the water’s edge where it had been flowing into the creek and contaminating the waterway. Eventually, she began to work with the Forest Service, which owns the land above her property where the Carribeau mill ruins and mine entrance shaft, or adit, are located.
Brooke-Hitching offered a tour the reclamation site. We headed east across her property, a couple of canine companions bounding along, as our boots crunched across the new snow. Iron mining relics dotted the landscape alongside the modern machinery of reclamation work. The several-acre swath of land where the forest and pond had been was completely bare, a flat expanse of dirt stretching from the base of the mountain to the river. She said she’d been heartbroken to see the forest go, but the several feet of tailings underneath were contaminated enough to necessitate their removal. As we walked, a large truck rumbled methodically across the dirt, spraying green slurry. This was the reseeding truck, Brooke-Hitching explained, spraying the soil with hydro seed, a mix of water and native grass seed. Part of reclamation had entailed replanting the forest, and some 600 young trees stood resolutely across the otherwise bare land.
As we reached the river near the mostly collapsed mine adit, iron-rich orange ooze became visible — the strange-colored mud commonly seen near mines of the San Juans. Water coursed over the rust-colored sludge via a narrow channel, pouring directly out of the old mine tunnel above at a rate of 600 to 800 gallons per minute, then joining the river shortly below. At the confluence of the Howard Fork and the mine run-off, the contrast was clear: sticky orange mud, carried along by the icy water, merged with the clear water of the Howard Fork. The two liquids combined like different colored strands in a braid.
We turned uphill toward the mountain that concealed the labyrinth of mine shafts that had once buzzed day and night with activity, and trudged up a small hill to get a view of the mine’s entrance.
“This hill is actually the mine tailings pile now,” Brooke-Hitching said, gesturing toward our feet. “It’s where they gathered up most of the tailings from the remediation project and consolidated it to reduce the contaminated area.” Though it was currently covered in snow, a layer of dirt also encased the hill of tailings to prevent wind or water from carrying contaminated dust into the surrounding environment.
As Brooke-Hitching, a stalwart woman in her 70s, paused to let me ascend the last dozen meters to the adit in the slick fresh snow by myself, I crested the hill and looked down at the Carribeau Mine entrance. Partially collapsed and encircled by a ring of orange sludge, it looked like the maw of some mythical monster of the underworld, waiting to gobble up unsuspecting passersby. A flood of icy water poured out of the portal, gurgling softly downhill. The center of the adit was a black hole. Standing slightly above it, I shuddered at the thought of losing my footing on the slick mud and snow and sliding into the abyss.
Back on flat ground, we passed through a section of the site where ruins of cabins now stood (the cabins had once housed higher-ups at the mine). I wondered if Charles Newton had ever called one of these cabins home. I thought about the water flowing out of the mine. I had a lot more questions about exactly what was in that water and in those tailings that merited an entire forest being dug up just to contain them.
I phoned Camille Price, former project manager at the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety and the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.
FROM A TO ZINC
When the first miners of yore arrived in the area and looked up at those ruddy red peaks, they knew. The colorful rock signaled heavy mineralization, a sign from the Tertiary’s supervolcanoes that they had filled the cracks in those mountains with valuable metals. The rusty hues of the mountains were the result of pyrite, an iron sulfide. As the mines were constructed, countless thousands of tons of iron-rich rock were excavated from the insides of the mountains. The rock was then ground down into tailings, tiny rocks often smaller than beach sand. Massive quantities of it were then dumped on the ground and exposed to the elements of the outside world. This is when the invisible process of contamination began, a phenomenon known as acid rock drainage.
Price explained the basic geochemistry to me. “The interesting thing about pyrite is that it’s the main compound that can cause acid rock drainage when mixed with oxygen, water and sulfur-loving microbes in the environment,” she said. When mixed with those elements from the outside world, the iron sulfides in the rock “act as the catalyst that produces an excess of free hydrogen ions and creates acid.” The microbes, which occur naturally in the rock but are normally confined by their environment, multiply rapidly in the outside environment, producing free hydrogen ions that generate acidity, “which can lead to sulfuric acid that then leaches other metals out of the rock.” In short, when the acidified water runs over the mine debris, that’s when the metals get pulled out of the rock by the acid and enter the water and soil. This process can start as soon as just a few years after mine activity begins or may take decades to become a problem.
The metals entering the watershed can be thought of like letters in alphabet soup, Price said. The typical suite of metals found in alpine mining sites aligns with the first letters of the alphabet: aluminum, arsenic, boron, cadmium and copper, all the way down the line to zinc. The exact chemical composition of the rock depends on the precise location and geothermal activity of its formation, but many of these elements are typical in the rock of the San Juans. Most of the elements are not harmful to humans or aquatic life in relatively small amounts, but some are of serious concern when they reach certain levels.
“We’re concerned with the ingestion of lead and arsenic,” Price explained. “Lead can cause mental impairment in growing children and arsenic is carcinogenic.”
Humans aren’t the only ones affected by the presence of these metals; aquatic life is, too. “Because fish spend their entire life cycle in the water, eating, drinking, breeding, they are more sensitive to lower concentrations.”
Although not many studies on aquatic life exist, one by the Colorado Department of Wildlife in the ’90s showed that the Howard Fork is devoid of native fish and macroinvertebrates, and that stocked trout had a difficult time surviving, a likely result of elevated metals in the water.
Water testing of the Howard Fork, which began biannually in 1994, has found high enough metal levels to warrant monitoring but not enough to officially classify the river as an impaired waterway. Nonetheless, Price said, individual mines can contribute a lot of metals, and tailings and waste from the Carribeau mine were known to be high in arsenic and lead. Before reclamation began, there was nothing to keep those metals from flowing into the river.
By the early 2000s, the Forest Service, EPA, conservation groups and landowners were brainstorming ways to address the situation: Water from the mine and storms was steadily flowing across the massive tailings pile, which sprawled across several acres of land, causing contamination of the land and river just below. The tailings field was also exposed to the air, making it susceptible to wind erosion spreading contaminated dust into human environments.
Though efforts had been underway since the early 2000s to implement solutions, the early efforts were mostly short-term, such as rerouting the mine drainage to avoid flowing over the tailings.
By the late 2010s, the EPA took over completion of the remediation, beginning work in the summer of 2016. Since the water was no longer flowing through the acres of tailings, they had had a chance to drain and could be removed.
A top priority was gathering up as much of the tailings as possible, including the vast quantities that lay under the soil of the old forest that Brooke-Hitching had described. Though EPA officials had expected a large-scale excavation of contaminated tailings, it significantly exceeded original estimates. By the end of the excavation, the EPA crew had removed approximately 150,000 cubic yards of tailings and over 14,000 cubic yards of rock waste, enough contaminated waste to fill 50 Olympic swimming pools. The waste was then deposited in an on-site repository, a specially engineered holding area designed to contain the waste in a concentrated zone and guard it from erosion. Finally, the crew hauled in clean, nutritious soil and capped the whole operation with two feet of topsoil. (As of press time Wednesday afternoon, the EPA could not be reached for comment on mediation efforts.)
The heavy metal-rich tailings and waste were put to rest. The thick dirt cap would provide clean soil on which to revegetate the land and prevent erosion. No more would fierce Ophir winds blow the tailings dust onto nearby residences. No more would snowmelt and rain sift through acres of exposed tailings and send an acidic soup surging into the Howard Fork.
Though the water still flows out of the Carribeau adit, and cannot be easily stopped, it has been rerouted around the reinforced tailings hill. Additionally, the crew built a berm around the tailings repository to protect it from erosion and added a rock wall in between the mine adit and the tailings. A drainage pond below the muddy orange channel of mine water was added to help the iron content settle out before reaching the Howard Fork below. Revegetation seed was sprayed; young trees were planted.
Now, time will once more take the reins of the old mine site. Man made a mess; man cleaned it up, at least as best as he could. The tale of land remediation at the Carribeau cannot be neatly wrapped up in a bow and stored away in a box labeled, “The End.” There is no perfect, foolproof solution to curing the ailments of a dismantled mountain. However, as this chapter in the story of the Carribeau Mine comes to a close, the environmental agencies, conservation groups and citizens involved in these past decades of work look toward the future of this land with renewed hope for a healthier future.