Aspen Times Weekly: Could a mine-waste spill happen here? |

Aspen Times Weekly: Could a mine-waste spill happen here?

by Scott Condon
Mountain bikers check out a stream running from the mine works at the Ruby Mine up Lincoln Creek Valley. The rust-colored water pools before spilling over into a dump for waste rock for the inactive mine. Iron naturally occurs in the rocks and soils of Red Mountain.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |


The area around the Ruby Mine southeast of Aspen is stunning. Craggy peaks soar to 13,000 feet in every direction at the head of Lincoln Creek. Meadows of wildflowers carpet the valley floor. Deteriorating mining structures liter the landscape.

But part of the scene is also unsettling. Streams flowing from the inactive Ruby Mine workings and from at least one spring intermingled in the mine area run a milky white color. The water winds through vast rust-stained mine dumps — the waste rock strewn outside mine adits and shafts — that give the area an otherworldly appearance.

A layman can be forgiven for wondering if the water is contaminated. The landscape that it flows through and the water itself doesn’t look natural before it runs into the pristine headwaters of Lincoln Creek.

But looks can be deceiving, according to experts with the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Inactive Mine Reclamation Program. Greg Rosenmerkel, engineering, minerals and fleet staff officer for the White River National Forest supervisor’s office in Glenwood Springs, said Colorado’s mountains contain a lot of minerals. When water runs through them and becomes discolored, it isn’t necessarily a sign of contamination or threat to water quality, he said.

A glance at Red Mountain, the 13,000-foot high peak where the Ruby is located, reinforces his point. Large swathes at various elevations are stained red, showing the presence of iron.

The Ruby Mine, abandoned decades ago, hasn’t raised any red flags for toxicity to Lincoln Creek, according to state and federal officials. The creek fills Grizzly Reservoir. Water from the reservoir is diverted to Twin Lakes and released downstream to the Roaring Fork River.

The flushing of the reservoir to repair a gate at the intake earlier this month caused a stir because the discharge turned lower Lincoln Creek and the Roaring Fork River through Aspen and all the way below Basalt a chalky color. The city of Aspen took samples of sediment at the drained reservoir to have it tested for metals.

It’s unclear if the reservoir have ever been tested before, but Steven Renner of the state Inactive Mine Reclamation Program tested Lincoln Creek above Grizzly Reservoir at the request of the U.S. Forest Service in the early 2000s.

Renner is a senior project manager and geologist with the agency. He said most of the water flowing into Lincoln Creek from the area disrupted by mining is from a spring. A smaller amount of water comes from the collapsed Ruby Mine.

The degradation from the spring flow is due to natural mineralization in the mountain, he said. The mine drainage appears to be rich in aluminum and iron, he said. Aluminum results in white strains on rocks in and around the streams and Lincoln Creek. Red stains are from iron.

Renner said he didn’t recall that the test results showed that the water quality warranted further monitoring or action by the state.

Ruby isn’t on the list of 230 mines in Colorado that have been identified for leaking toxic discharge into waterways, according to a map produced by the Denver Post based on information from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Nevertheless, the Ruby Mine continues to raise questions to most who see it.

– Scott Condon

Stirling “Buzz” Cooper recalls venturing into the Lower Durant Mine on Aspen Mountain as a kid in World War II-era Aspen.

The owner of the mine at the time charged tourists 50 cents to go on a tour that started one-half block from the Glory Hole, now site of a city park. “I went in a couple of times with tourists,” Cooper said.

The big attraction was a waterfall in the interior of the mine, maybe as much as a mile inside, Cooper said. The water came out the same adit, or tunnel, as the tourists entered.

“You could walk along the rails and the ditch was off to the side,” Cooper said.

His dad, owner of Cooper Books, used flash photography to capture the image. He used the picture on postcards he sold highlighting the Durant Waterfall (see photo, above).

Cooper’s experience is no longer possible but take a ride up the Silver Queen Gondola or a walk up Smuggler Mountain Road and Aspen’s mining heritage still pops out. Numerous openings are still visible on Aspen Mountain and evidence of collapsed mines is easy to spot. The Smuggler Mine Tours provide a bona fide glimpse into Aspen’s rich mining history.

Water drains into water table

Pitkin County has between 600 and 800 mine features, including multiple adits into the same mine, according to an estimate by the Colorado state government. And as Cooper’s experience shows, there are Aspen mines that are filled with water — but just because there’s water, that doesn’t mean it’s contaminated water.

Still, that hefty inventory of adits and shafts makes it reasonable to wonder if something similar to the discharge of 3 million gallons of toxic water from the Gold King Mine near Silverton into the Animas River earlier this month could happen in Aspen (see story, page 33).

State and federal officials as well as miners with street credibility will never say never, but a similar disaster in Pitkin County is unlikely, in large part because of geology, they agreed.

Aspen Mountain’s mines tended to be internally drained to the water table, so “there is generally no significant surface drainage discharges associated with the underground workings,” said Bruce Stover, an official with the Colorado Inactive Mine Reclamation Program. That means there is a “very limited possibility” of underground impoundments of water being formed, he said.

Mines in the San Juan Mountains and other parts of the state have water above the surface. Toxic water was intentionally captured inside the Gold King Mine. It breached when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency undertook a reclamation effort.

Aspen miners tended to encounter water below the level of the water table and Roaring Fork River, said Jay Parker, a partner in the Compromise Mine on Aspen Mountain and a miner and tour guide at the Smuggler Mine.

The water emerging from Aspen’s mines hasn’t been found to be acidic or laced with heavy metals in any testing to date. In one of Aspen’s few hard-rock mine reclamation projects, water in Castle Creek tested similarly above and below where the Hope Mine discharged, according to Forest Service records.

Parker said water draining from the Compromise Mine on Smuggler Mountain feeds ponds where fish thrive and ducks gather.

Local Mine reclamation aimed at safety

Many of Pitkin County’s mines have collapsed, either naturally or by public agencies for safety reasons.

“Our records show we have safeguarded approximately 90 hazardous, non-coal openings in Pitkin County, many of them on Aspen Mountain,” said Stover. Numerous closures have also been completed on coalmines in the Coal Basin and Thompson Creek areas.

The Forest Service typically performs safety closures on three or four mines per year, according to Greg Rosenmerkel, engineering, minerals and fleet staff officer on the White River National Forest. “There are hundreds of mines across the forest.”

The focus of both the Forest Service and the Inactive Mine Reclamation Program is to prevent people from entering an unsafe situation. Old mining timbers have often rotted, making interior travel perilous. Air deep underground can be toxic without proper ventilation.

“It’s almost an attractive nuisance,” Rosenmerkel said of the old mines.

A recent closure was completed earlier this summer at three mines in the high ground beyond Crystal. The typical closure costs $200,000, though no two projects are the same, he said.

Both the Forest Service and Inactive Mine Reclamation Program are focused on finding mines that pose a physical hazard, such as ones located in a ski area or adjacent to a popular hiking trail, and safe-guarding them.

No toxic water impounded

If Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management officials suspect environmental issues, the state Water Quality Control Division is mobilized to test for acidity or metals. If a problem is found, the Inactive Mine Reclamation Program figures out how to solve the problem. If an environmental problem is suspected with a mine on private lands, the Forest Service might be involved if it affects public lands, Rosenmerkel said.

The Hope Mine in Castle Creek Valley warranted remediation while the Ruby Mine in Lincoln Creek Valley has raised concerns but hasn’t been found in need of monitoring (see related stories), according to officials.

Rosenmerkel said there is no situation in the Aspen-Ranger District where water as toxic as that in the Gold King Mine is being impounded.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based nonprofit focused on water quality and quantity issues in the valley, doesn’t specifically test to see how water coming from mines affects rivers and streams in the basin.

“Outside of Ruby, I don’t know if we have a big enough problem or big enough source,” said Rick Lofaro, the conservancy’s executive director.