Muddy waters?

Bob BerwynSummit County correspondentAspen, CO Colorado

BRECKENRIDGE – Just 48 hours after a local erosion control expert warned that inadequate containment could cause potential problems at the French Gulch mine waste repository, Thursday’s epic gully-washer caused some limited flooding and runoff from the site. Earth berms and straw bales captured some of the tainted runoff, but some water flowed uncontrolled down a temporary driveway and down the road in French Gulch. The storm dropped 1.29 inches of rain in Breckenridge and caused some localized flooding in town. Weather watcher Rick Bly, who tallies precipitation for the National Weather Service, said the storm was one of the “top ten” single-day rain events he has recorded in the area.The EPA plans to store up to 8,000 cubic yards of mine waste from the national forest Claimjumper parcel at the Wellington-Oro site.EPA cleanup coordinator Steve Way said Friday he didn’t have time to talk about the storm or the effectiveness of the agency’s sediment control measures. He said earlier this week that the project has “all the sediment control it needs.”County and town officials who signed off on the cleanup said the EPA measures are adequate to control any polluted runoff. Way said earlier this week that his agency is exempt from provisions of the Clean Water Act which require on-site containment of sediment and runoff. The Clean Water Act generally calls for a stormwater runoff plan and requires that all sediment and runoff be contained on site.The rocks and earth being moved to the French Gulch are polluted with exceptionally high levels of lead – up to five percent in some of the material – as well as other toxic heavy metals. Exposure to the polluted rocks through direct contact, especially ingestion, could pose a health risk, EPA officials said during a series of meetings leading up to the cleanup project.Federal officials have downplayed the health risks associated with the cleanup and touted improved environmental conditions at both locations. The risk of direct exposure will be drastically reduced at the Claimjumper site, and long-term management and monitoring at the repository will ensure public safety at that location, according to the EPA.Several local residents visited the site during Thursday’s downpour and reported seeing water leaving the site and overflowing roadside drainage ditches. Town Councilmember Dave Rossi, who lives in the nearby Wellington neighborhood, said some of the containment ditches constructed by the EPA seemed to be working. But in other places, water was moving off the property unimpeded, he said.Rossi said he would like to see the EPA do a better job of managing runoff, and said he would raise his concerns once again at an upcoming Town Council meeting. Rossi would also like to see the EPA test the water for metals as it runs off the repository and into roadside ditches.Of concern are possible impacts to the stream in French Gulch, especially in a reach just downstream of the Wellington neighborhood, which harbors a healthy population of trout. Erosion control specialist Doug Trieste, who monitors construction projects for the Summit Water Quality Committee, said he also checked the site during the rain. He said some of the EPA containment measures seemed to be working, and reported that front-end loaders were working during the storm, moving muck and water around on the site to proactively manage the runoff.Some residents who have wells in the area said they aren’t convinced that runoff from the repository won’t somehow infiltrate the water table and affect their drinking water. Huron Heights resident Mary Logan said she plans on testing her well in the future to ensure that none of the toxic metals are contaminating her water. “My main concern is my water,” said Steve Tohari, another Huron Heights resident who gets his drinking water supply from a well in the area. Tohari, who also visited the repository during Thursday’s rainstorm, said that what concerned him was the lack of any impermeable barriers that would prevent runoff from the mine waste site from percolating into the groundwater.The EPA relied on previous testing at the Wellington-Oro site to show that the repository won’t impact groundwater.Additionally, some citizens have said they don’t feel like their concerns are being taken seriously by local and federal officials.