Prior tests showed low levels of metals in Lincoln Creek above reservoir |

Prior tests showed low levels of metals in Lincoln Creek above reservoir

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Jim Paussa of Basalt checks out a milky-colored stream running from the Ruby Mine workings Sunday.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

By any account, the Ruby Mine area at the head of the Lincoln Creek drainage is an eye opener — historically fascinating and otherworldly.

Streams flowing off Red Mountain run a milky color through waste rock that is stained a rust color from the mines. The larger of the streams is fed by a spring high up on the mountain. The lower-flow stream is discharge from the mine workings, which were abandoned decades ago.

The water from Lincoln Creek garnered attention last week after the Twin Lanes Canal and Reservoir Co. flushed Grizzly Reservoir to work on its plumbing. Turbid water released into lower Lincoln Creek emptied into the Roaring Fork River and turned it murky all the way below Basalt.

The water and the rocks it runs through in the upper Lincoln Creek drainage may look threatening, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they pose an environmental hazard, according to state and local officials.

Steven Renner, a senior project manager and geologist with the Colorado Inactive Mine Reclamation Program, said he collected water samples in upper Lincoln Creek in the early 2000s at the request of the U.S. Forest Service.

“I have a vague recollection that stream water quality was impacted by the mine drainage, but more significantly from a spring coming from Red Mountain,” he wrote in an email to officials with the city of Aspen and Roaring Fork Conservancy last week. “Spring flow degradation was a result of natural mineralization within the mountain.”

“The main drainage I observed from the collapsed Ruby Mine looked to be rich in aluminum and iron,” he said.

The white stains on the rocks in the creek are likely from aluminum, he said. Iron creates the rust color that covers large swaths of rock.

“There is a small vegetative kill zone associated with the mine drainage,” Renner wrote.

In an interview with The Aspen Times, Renner said the tests in the early 2000s didn’t produce results that warranted continued monitoring of the Ruby Mine discharge.

In the aftermath of the Gold King Mine disaster, where 3 million gallons of toxic water was accidentally released into the Animas River on Aug. 5, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is working on a map that shows 230 mines or mining areas that are creating water-quality issues. The Ruby Mine is on the list of 148 “draining mines that likely impact water quality with no active water treatment.” However, the Roaring Fork River isn’t flagged as impaired in water quality by mining activity from the Ruby.

Greg Rosenmerkel, engineering, minerals and fleet staff officer with the White River National Forest, said Ruby Mine hasn’t been identified by the agency for environmental concern. He stressed that environmental degradation cannot be based on appearance.

The city of Aspen isn’t making any assumptions, but officials collected sediment from the drained Grizzly Reservoir last week for testing for metals by a private Denver laboratory.

The Roaring Fork River receives runoff regularly from Lincoln Creek, said April Long, storm water manager for the city of Aspen. The concern is that the release of the water from the reservoir also released higher concentrations of metals after they collected there.

“It’s not that they’re new particulates, but they’re much more concentrated,” Long said.

The city samples will be tested for all metals, not just aluminum and iron. It typically takes two weeks to get results back she said.

Once the results are back, the city will draw on experts to determine if the metals present were at a level for concern.

“What levels would cause a red flag at the state level?” Long asked.

The results also will determine if any downstream user of water needs to be concerned by a future flush of the reservoir and what can be done differently, Long said.

Rick Lofaro, executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, said in an email written Thursday that it could turn out that the flushing had benefits for the river ecosystem.

“My cursory update is that the level of concern is low around any potential toxicity of the sediment. That is not confirmed, and we do not have soil or water sample results yet,” Lofaro wrote.

“After speaking to many, many folks about this issue, there may be some beneficial organic material within the sediment that was distributed to the Roaring Fork. There may also be some aluminum and iron contained in the sediment, but not likely at levels that would be harmful to the aquatic ecosystem,” Lofaro wrote.