July 29, 2009

Cleaning up Creede, Colorado

(Click image to enlarge)
Creede Avenue, Creede, Colorado, 1924

I knew some mining processes were toxic but I never imagined that they could render land unusable until properly detoxified. On Monday July 27, 2009 the Valley Courier (Alamosa, Co.) ran an opinion article by Virgina Simmons entitled,
Cleaning up Creede.

At Creede in 1892, it took only one shot to kill Bob Ford, thereby removing (1) the dirty little coward who killed Mr. Howard (Jesse James), (2) a competitor of saloonkeeper Soapy Smith, and (3) a character named Ed O’Kelley, who performed the deed and later did Colorado the favor of removing himself from the state.

I do not advocate this method of eliminating disreputable people, but it would be nice if it were so easy to clean up the ground and water after thousands of prospectors, speculators, pick men, timber men, hoist men, machine men, drillers, muckers, rope riders, electricians, mill workers, teamsters, and railroad crews got through with it at Creede. Left behind were waste rock, tunnel drainage, and mill tailings that are much harder to dispose of than Ford, Smith, and O’Kelley.

For a decade, the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee (WCRC) has been devoting its energies to solving environmental problems at Creede. The board of WCRC includes nonprofit organizations, county government, state and federal agencies, and local volunteers who probably would prefer to be fishing, while, instead, they have been working on water quality studies, stream restoration, flood control, and mine reclamation.

(Click image to enlarge)
Creede floodplain, 1924

Travelers on Highway 149, approaching Creede from the south, undoubtedly have noticed the open area below town where no new building has taken place. This floodplain contains residue from mining and milling that has caused contamination of the soil, although in one portion near the airport, the Mineral County Fairgrounds Association now has a Brownfields (EPA) grant for cleanup that will involve removal of the soil or capping it so that the ground will be safe for activities.

Much of the material blanketing the floodplain came from the Emperius Mill which operated in 1934-1972 and left behind a tailings pile between the highway and Willow Creek. If the name is familiar to Alamosans, it is because Herman Emperius was a prominent rancher who traded in livestock, hay, and grain in Alamosa, was vice president of Alamosa National Bank, and was owner of the Emperius Block, while his partner for a few years was Benjamin T. Poxson, a local teacher, school principal and secretary of Billy Adams when he served in political office.

After mining and milling activities had been abandoned around 1920 at the Amerthyst vein, the team of Emperius and Poxson revived Creede by consolidating the mines and building the mill below town. The Emperius Mill reduced ores prior to their being shipped by rail to smelters, leaving behind tailings and slime on the fan that lies between Creede and the Rio Grande River.

The Emperius Mill was not entirely to blame for this toxic mess, though. Earlier, the Humphreys Mill had crushed ore at the junction of West Willow Creek and East Willow Creek and dumped its tailings directly into Willow Creek.

This material flowed down the creek, through town, and thence to the Rio Grande River, until protesters went to court and forced a halt. The Humphreys Mill then constructed a leaky, wooden flume to carry its tailings beyond town and dumped them on the floodplain, where they were dewatered and loaded into railroad cars for shipment to smelters.

Today, a mile above town in the West Willow Creek drainage, more challenging problems than the floodplain exist. The Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Waste Rock Site, which got its final listing on the National Priorities List in September 2008, is an EPA Superfund project that must deal with the uncontrolled hazardous waste in the area around the picturesque Commodore Mill that charms so many sightseers and artists.

The unstable piles of waste rock that have spilled into West Willow Creek at the Commodore are bad enough, but the Nelson Tunnel is a much greater problem. With a complex network of branches, this tunnel drains water containing a brew of toxic minerals from all the mines.

Ultimately, the tunnel empties through one adit into West Willow Creek near the Commodore, thence down Willow Creek where fish are unable to survive, through Creede where a flood could contaminate the town, and on down the floodplain to the Rio Grande River.

Clearly, no local or state project could come up with sufficient resources to tackle a problem like the Nelson Tunnel, but the perseverant WCRC committee got the ball rolling. The EPA is now starting its investigations and feasibility studies for the tunnel, and work is already under way on the contaminated waste rock pile at the Commodore.

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