This site was identified through the Natural Resource Damages section of Superfund legislation known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The State of Colorado has filed suit against responsible parties to ensure cleanup of the site, mitigate impacts to the aquatic system and to recover state costs for losses to natural resources. The lead agency for remediation is the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The Idarado mine is located between the towns of Telluride (population 1,950) and Ouray (population 750) in San Miguel and Ouray Counties. A mountain ridge separates the Telluride District from the Red Mountain District. The mine extends beneath this ridge, with the western portal located about 2 miles east of Telluride. In the Telluride District, there are 7 infiltration lagoons and 6 tailings ponds. The eastern portal of the mine in the Red Mountain District is located about 11 miles south of Ouray. This District consists of historic buildings, inactive mines and 5 tailings ponds along Red Mountain Creek.
Gold and silver mining began in the 1870's in the San Juan Mountains around the present-day towns of Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton. There were numerous small shaft and placer mines throughout the mountains, and mining activity peaked from 1905 to 1911. Many of the mines were shut down by 1928. During World War II, demand for minerals again grew. The many small mining claims were consolidated into large company holdings such as the Idarado. The Idarado mines and mill operated until 1978. The majority of mined land reclamation has been completed by the Idarado Mining Company, a subsidiary of Newmont Gold Company.
The major human health concern is possible exposure to heavy metals in the tailings, specifically lead and cadmium. However, human contact with tailings is minimal. The main impact to the aquatic system is from zinc, cadmium, manganese and changes in pH.
The tailings piles contain elevated lead levels (1,300 to 10,000 ppm) and lead concentrations in some soil samples in Telluride are elevated. A 1986 study, financed by Idarado Mining Company, found 7% of the children tested had blood lead levels above 10 ug/dL and the average was 6.1 ug/dL. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had established 25 ug/dL as the blood lead level of concern for children at that time. In a community-wide study, 9 to 21 children were tested for blood lead each year from 1993 to 1997. The average blood lead concentration each year was 4.2 ug/dL. The CDC blood lead level of concern for children is currently 10 ug/dL. High zinc concentrations adversely affect aquatic life in local rivers and creeks. The rivers are not sources of municipal drinking water. Farmers and ranchers downstream of the Red Mountain District have concerns over contaminated irrigation water.
In 1983, the State of Colorado filed suit against the Idarado Mining Company for natural resource damages under CERCLA. The State was involved in either court actions or negotiations with the company until July 1992 when a negotiated remedy was finalized in federal court. The cleanup involved stabilizing and revegetating the 11 large tailings piles, clearing sediments from the underground mine, diverting surface runoff around mine wastes, and re-routing internal mine waters away from highly mineralized regions in the underground workings. All work has been completed except for some tailings in Society Turn. The state is in negotiations with the landowner to obtain access to complete the work on this site.
The mining company paid for natural resource restoration in the area and to enhance fish habitat. In 1996 the City of Ouray received funds from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to enhance the aquatic habitat of one mile of the Uncompahgre River immediately north of Ouray.
The Idarado Mining Company completed a majority of the construction phase of the Idarado remediation in December 1997. In September 2000, the State, Idarado and Telecam signed a three-party agreement wherein Telecam assumed responsibility to remediate Society Turn Tailings 2 and 3, located on their property. Society Turn 2 South, "the beach," will be remediated into a ball field while also providing parking spaces at that location. Negotiations continue with San Miguel Valley Corporation, owner of Society Turn Tailings pile number 1, regarding remediation of tailings at that location.
The Idarado crew completed enlarging the infiltration lagoons at the upper end of the San Miguel Valley to increase their capacity to accommodate spring flows from the Mill Level Tunnel. Revegetation of a portion of Telluride tailings piles 5-6 (TT5-6) was conducted during the spring of 2001 to improve growth of a portion of the side slope. As part of Idarado's proposed "Legacy Project" to develop their property in the east end of the valley, the State approved an alternative source of soil in the event that direct revegetation of the tailings is not successful, which, as specified in the Remedial Action Plan (RAP), would require the tailings to be covered with soil and revegetated. In November 2001, the people of Telluride voted not to annex the Legacy Project into the Town of Telluride, however.
Thus far, the mine cleanup effort has been successful, with the major remedial elements constructed and functioning as designed.
In 1999, the City of Ouray received Natural Resource Restoration funding in the amount of $417,906 for Phase II of the Uncompahgre River Restoration. The re-created river channel and floodplain was revegetated with wetland and riparian vegetation to create wildlife habitat and enhance aquatic habitat. The Town of Telluride received Natural Resource Restoration funds in the amount of $527,500 for the San Miquel River Restoration Project. The Project consisted of rehabilitating a 0.7 mile disturbed stretch of the San Miquel River, including channel stabilization, restoration and enhancement of wetland and riparian communities, and creation and enhancement of aquatic and wildlife habitat.
The Ouray Trail Group, Inc. also received Natural Resource Restoration funding in the amount of $150,000 for the acquisition of 72 acres of alpine habitat in Yankee Boy Basin. All three projects funded will place conservation easements on the subject land to preclude future development of the properties in perpetuity. The company has also funded a five-year blood lead screening program for young Telluride children.
In 2000, the State's Natural Resource Trustees granted the money remaining in the Natural Resources Damage Restoration (NRDs) Fund through the second competitive "Solicitation for Proposal (SFP)" process: The Town of Telluride received a grant of $16,000.00 to conduct Phase II of the San Miguel River Restoration Project, which restored river channel characteristics, riparian and wetland vegetation, and enhanced aquatic habitat in the San Miguel River for approximately 0.3 miles, from the Pine Street Bridge downstream to Aspen Street; San Miguel County received a grant in the amount of $93,700.00 to rehabilitate 0.3 mile disturbed stretch of the San Miguel River, i.e., river channel restoration and enhancement of approximately 0.5 acres of wetland and riparian communities, and creation and enhancement of aquatic and wildlife habitat, located approximately 13 miles downstream of Telluride; and Ouray County received a grant of $174,000.00 to be used toward the purchase of 122 acres of sub-alpine ecosystem in the Red Mountain Creek watershed. All projects were approved with the condition that a conservation easement be placed on the property acquired or restored with Natural Resource Damage Funds to protect them from development in perpetuity.