Abandoned Mine Site Remediation

UWP participates in remediation projects at legacy mine sites in the Upper Uncompahgre Watershed to address metals loading and acidic mine drainage to streams that do not meet beneficial uses for aquatic life, recreation, water supply and/or agriculture. Consequently they are on EPA’s Clean Water Act’s 303(d) list of impaired waters. Loading from abandoned mines and natural processes results in overall poor water quality in the Upper Uncompahgre Watershed (headwaters to Ridgway Reservoir).

You can learn about mine site remediation in the watershed from this 2023 presentation.

Technical Coordinator Ashley Bembenek at Evenings of History at the Wright Opera House

Current Project

Governor Basin Project Planning
In the summer of 2018, UWP continued discussions with the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS) and Ouray Silver Mines, Inc. (OSMI) about how to use Natural Resource Damages (NRD) Funds from the Idarado Mine consent decree for a restoration project in our watershed. Based on water quality and environmental conditions, conceptual project designs, and potential funding sources, our nonprofit partnered with DRMS and OSMI to develop a plan for a restoration project in Governor Basin, where waste rock and tailings from the Terrible and Virginius mines leach metals that impair water quality, down-gradient aquatic and terrestrial habitat, and watershed health.

The goal of the project, approved for NRD funding in 2020, is to collaborate to restore alpine, riparian and aquatic habitat, and improve water quality in Governor, Sneffels and Canyon creeks. UWP spent 2021 crossing all our t’s and dotting all our i’s with project partners including Trout Unlimited. In September, our staff and volunteers collected seeds in Governor Basin for use in future vegetation efforts in the project.

In mid-2022, Ouray Silver Mines, Inc. went into receivership so plans for the project were halted. As of July 2023, no buyers have been found for the mine and site. The EPA is now considering taking over the main implementation of the project with UWP and TU providing assistance including revegetation and monitoring. The project may possibly get underway in summer 2024.

Completed Projects

Atlas Mill Project Planning
In early 2018, Ouray Silver Mines, Inc. (OSMI) asked UWP if we would partner on a proposed project remediating and stabilizing the Atlas Mill and tailings pile up County Road 361 above Ouray. This multi-stakeholder project aims to improve water quality in Sneffels Creek downstream of the Atlas Mill. While UWP completed a similar bank stabilization project in this area in 2017, the new project led by Trout Unlimited aims to extend the bank stabilization to further restore the area and improve water quality by reducing heavy metal drainage into the creek. UWP organized a community meeting in Ouray in July to share the project proposal and get public feedback. The response was positive, and the project was approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The $350,000 project was funded partially through the Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP) program with a financial penalty paid by OSMI for a water quality violation at the Revenue-Virginius Mine, made by the mine’s previous owners. Nearly half of the remaining project funding will be donated by OSMI.

In 2019, Trout Unlimited (TU) took the lead on the Atlas Mill Tailings Remediation, working with OSMI on approximately eight acres with 4.7 acres of contamination present in the form of legacy waste rock and tailings. With UWP only supporting planning efforts as needed, project partners included the USFS and EPA.

A Good Samaritan Administrative Order on Consent (AOC) was needed as the legal binding approval document between TU (Good Sam) and the USFS. The process to develop the AOC took over eight months and is now a good template for UWP and others to work on future projects in the watershed. John Reams Construction, out of Naturita, was the selected contractor that worked at the site with TU to install three drainage controls with drainage fans along the top and bottom sections of the consolidated tailings and waste piles, streambank stabilization and waste removal along Sneffels Creek, as well as revegetation through grading, consolidation, and amending of contaminated waste rock and tailings. The work was completed in fall 2020, a final report was issued in December 2020, and the site is being monitored for results.

2017 Non-Point Source Grant Projects
UWP’s remediation projects at three legacy mine sites in the Upper Uncompahgre Watershed addressed metals loading and acidic mine drainage to streams that do not meet beneficial uses for aquatic life, recreation, water supply or agriculture.

The first site to be remediated was the Michael Breen Mine, where the polluted drainage from a collapsed mine entrance was flowing from the mine across Engineer Pass Road and into the Uncompahgre River. This high alpine portion of the river was found to contain toxic levels of cadmium, copper, zinc and manganese, which impair aquatic life. UWP constructed a diversion ditch to reroute the mine discharge and reduce leaching of metals into the river in October 2014. Re-routing the water also eliminated pooling under the load-out structure, stopping destabilization of the structure. Later, a one-acre area adjacent to the diversion ditch and former drainage area was re-vegetated with a mix of native seeds, and anchored by an early ground cover species, a soil amendment and aspen mulch. Chris Peltz of Silverton-based Research Services LLC assisted with the design of re-vegetation prescriptions and installation.

The second completed remediation project was at Vernon Mine, where two draining mine entrances were leaching significant amounts of copper into Gray Copper Gulch. Besides the copper levels, this stream has been identified as having poor water quality due to iron and a low pH, which impair aquatic life. Next, construction crews removed approximately 1,000 cubic yards of waste rock from the Gray Copper Gulch valley floor, and hauled it uphill to a repository in a flat area away from hillslope runoff and drainage areas. Two mine entrances were closed off and a small diversion ditch was constructed to redirect drainage from one entrance. Strategic portions of the area were also revegetated with a high alpine mix, soil amendments and aspen mulch.

The third project is at Atlas Mill, an abandoned mill off Camp Bird Road above Sneffels Creek. Mine tailings from legacy operations have been deposited in the creek’s floodplain, and erosion of the tailings and runoff during spring snowmelt contribute heavy metals, especially cadmium and zinc, to the stream, impairing aquatic life. UWP collaborated with the operators of Ouray Silver Mine, Inc., which is the property owner of areas within the project, and consulting with Western Stream Works LLC on project design to minimize erosion of tailings in the floodplain.