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It isn’t the Alamosa River that kills fish

Letter by Jeff Stern

Summitville – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Galactic kills Alamosa fish, not old mines at Summitville

Dear Ed and Martha:

One of the casualties of the Summitville Mine disaster — in addition to dead fish, and the accumulation of heavy metals in soils and crops irrigated from the Alamosa River — appears to have been perspective.

Some folks, particularly boosters of the hardrock mining industry, it seems, have downplayed the impact of the gold mining operation that was abandoned by Galactic Resources of Canada in 1992.

“The Alamosa River was always dead!” these people say. Paul Martz echoed this opinion in his letter to the editor in the July, 1998, issue of Colorado Central.

It’s true that natural sources of mineralization and old mine workings have seeped into the Alamosa River for a long time. The river, by and large, was able to dilute these inflows. That is, until Galactic came along.

In the late 1980s, Galactic, with its nearly 500-acre open pit mine at Summitville, created a huge “acid factory” where small-scale, underground workings had existed. Snow and rain falling on the exposed, reactive rock bred acid mine drainage that flowed off the site, into the Wightman Fork — a major tributary of the Alamosa River — and then into the river itself.

Fish in the river and in Terrace Reservoir were obliterated in 1990 by exceedingly high levels of copper and acidity coming from the Galactic operation. Irrigators’ metal headraces and metal pipes, which, prior to Galactic, lasted up to 30 years or longer, corroded within six or seven years from exposure to the acidified river. Similarly, center pivot sprinklers, which are enormously expensive, have collapsed from corrosion.

A l995 study found that lambs fed only Alamosa River irrigated forage, and watered exclusively from the river over a 120-day period, accumulated copper in their livers halfway to the point of likely toxicity to the animals. Copper and manganese levels have risen in alfalfa. Meanwhile, soil pH has declined. Some farmers have limed their fields to counteract the affects of acidic river water.

These are all very real impacts to the environment and to agriculture — the primary industry in the Alamosa River watershed — that resulted from the Galactic operation at Summitville.

We’d like to see water quality in the Alamosa River return to what is was before Galactic did its dirty deed, where fish can once again live, and where farmers can irrigate from the river without fearing for the health of their soil, crops, and livestock.

It’ll take a while to get there, but maybe then we’ll invite all the doubters who dismiss the Alamosa River’s current woes as having resulted from historic pollution (ie: pre-Galactic) to visit for a fishing excursion.

Jeff Stern, coördinator Alamosa River Watershed Project, La Jara Sponsored by the Conejos County Soil Conservation District