OURAY COUNTY – Lanky, retired chemist Don Paulson stood in the snow beside a tributary of Red Mountain Creek and explained why the rocks in the creek were persimmon orange.
Energetic VISTA volunteer Rachel Boothby pried a rock from the same creek and explained how the Idarado Mining Company had failed to improve the water quality in the Red Mountain Mining District and would have to start over with a Superfund-mandated Plan B.
Paulson is the curator of the Ouray County Historical Museum and a retired professor. Boothby is the outreach coordinator for the Uncompahgre Watershed Project. Together they led a group of about 15 interested citizens last Sunday on a second annual Winter Mine Tour.
Some were on skis and some snowshoed up CR-31, Otto Mears’s old toll road, up to the mine works at the base of Red Mountain No. 2. Deep snow covered the waste dumps of the Guston and Robinson, the Yankee Girl, and the Genessee mines, with only a few picturesque, weathered-wood structures exposed. One could be forgiven for imagining the area as a benign ghost town. But when it comes to water quality, the effluent coming from the defunct works is seriously degrading the water in Red Mountain Creek and the Uncompahgre River below.
Boothby said the water in the creek is so acidic (a 3 on the pH scale of 1-14) that it does not support aquatic life. “We don’t know if it ever did up this high,” she said, “but we do know from newspaper accounts that there used to be fishing in Ouray. A lot of the mineralization you see comes from the mines draining. We want to improve the water quality downstream.”
Paulson’s passion is the history of the district, from which tens of millions of dollars in gold and silver were extracted, mostly in the decades of the 1880s and ’90s. He brought along a binder filled with hundred-year-old prints from the times when 1,000 people lived on these steep hillsides near the top of Red Mountain Pass. His chemistry background made him qualified as well to comment on the metals pollution that still flows out of the tunnels and adits, dumps and tailings piles. The water is so acidic, he said, as we gathered at the mostly-vanished Guston townsite, it dissolved the nails in the miner’s ladders. It was so bad, some mines had to replace their water pumps every month.
Boothby added some recent history. The Idarado, the last big mine, ceased operations in 1978, on both the Telluride and Ouray sides of the mountain. In 1983 the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sued Idarado and its parent company, Newmont Mining (the second biggest gold mining company in the world), under the newly created Superfund Act, to get Idarado to remediate ongoing air and water pollution. (I remembered the lead testing of children in Telluride in the late 1970s and the edict not to eat the strawberries from ones own backyard garden.)
The negotiated RAP, or Remedial Action Plan, met with considerable success on the Telluride side. But on the Ouray side, acid pH and high zinc and other mineral levels in the water remained essentially unchanged, even after considerable work around the big Treasury tunnel complex right off Highway 550. The problem, about 80 percent of the problem, Boothby said, was coming from this side of the creek, the east side, where no remedial work has yet been undertaken.
Most of the claims on the east side of the creek are now owned by Frank Baumgartner, Paulson said. Baumgartner, of Castle Rock on the Front Range, is well known to preservationists in Ouray for tearing down, or threatening to tear down, historic structures on his property. He has also floated the idea of strip mining Red Mountain No. 3.
Baumgartner owns the defunct mines – he owns 1,100 acres of claims in the area – but he is not liable for cleaning up the water pollution coming from them. He passed that responsibility on to IMC years ago when he paid them $1 million to assume his cleanup liability.
Boothby said that Idarado completed its work on the Treasury tunnel (which used to go through, with an elevator drop of 1,500 vertical feet, all the way to Telluride) in 1997. The company revegetated waste piles and installed concrete ditches to move water around the waste rock. Compliance testing began in 2002. The standard they needed to meet was a 50 percent drop in zinc levels downstream at Ironton. Results showed almost no change from before the remediation.
The original RAP expired in 2006. Now, according to Boothby, Idarado has 15 months to come up with a secondary plan. She and Paulson are hoping that plan will include work on the east side, the Baumgartner side of the creek, where a majority of the pollution comes from.
Our next stop was the Yankee Girl mine with its soaring, elegant frame structure. It is, according to Paulson, probably the most photographed scene on the pass. Unlike most mines in the area, the Yankee Girl was a vertical shaft mine, and this was the elevator housing that lowered miners into the dark and brought the ore up – $8-$12 million worth, Paulson said. Eight years ago Baumgartner threatened to bulldoze it unless the county gave him something he wanted. He stopped only when activists formed a human chain around the building.
From there the group moved up to the Genessee-Vanderbilt for lunch. Boothby’s boss at the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, Sarah Sauter, passed out sandwiches and coffee. From that high perch we could see the Treasury and a recently collapsed building near the tunnel mouth. But it was a leap of faith in that snowy silence to picture the district buzzing with humans and mules and belching steam boilers, with churches and taverns and boarding houses.
Paulson wants to preserve what is left of that physical heritage while at the same time helping to clean up the mess that the mining left. That is UWP’s goal as well. To that end UWP is sponsoring a San Juan Mining Conference, from 3-8 p.m. (dinner included) on April 27 at the Ouray Community Center. Partners and guest speakers will discuss “Water Quality of Red Mountain Creek,” “Understanding the Idarado Clean-up,” and “Watershed Restoration and Navigating Liability.” For information and to RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the walk back down to the cars Paulson told one more story. It seems a Congregational minister and his family had come up to Red Mountain Town to build a church. But no one in Red Mountain would give him a site. So he moved down the road a few hundred yards to the smaller town of Guston where he built his church on a prominent knoll. (“It’s pancaked now,” Paulson said, “but the boards and cut nails are still there.”) On the day of his first sermon, Red Mountain Town, where he had been spurned, burned to the ground. The theme of his sermon was “You can’t fight God and win.”