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Summitville needs science, not scare stories

Letter by Paul Martz

Mine Pollution – October 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Summitville needs science, not silver-water scare stories


In reply to the call for some perspective in Jeff Stern’s letter in your September edition, I think he’s right, but probably not in the same fashion he had in mind. I’d like to introduce some facts into the discussion about Summitville, not just the anecdotal “evidence” and political opinions contained in his letter.

I was an exploration geologist employed by the Anaconda Copper Company in 1979 when the orebody that Galactic Resources eventually mined was drilled out by us. While I was not directly involved in that project, as a senior staff member, I was expected to read all project reports as well as attend regular meetings on the numerous projects.

Anaconda was not the first company to look at Summitville as a prospective area. Gulf Minerals, ASARCO and I believe Exxon, did also. However, Anaconda conducted a significant regional program around the old district and there were some salient facts recorded in that data, which may be available through the University of Wyoming where ARCO eventually placed all of Anaconda’s surviving reports.

Prior to Anaconda’s drilling, stream sediment samples from Wightman Fork, more than a mile downstream from Summitville, contained copper in excess of 4000 parts per million and significant molybdenum as well. Additionally, highly elevated copper was noted in nearly every other drainage in the region, as would be expected from tens of square miles containing significant sulfide mineralization. In addition to the potential for a deep copper deposit beneath Summitville, there is ample evidence of Climax-type moly mineralization in both Wightman Fork and Alum Creek.

The point of the foregoing is that no matter how hard some people wish it not to be true, the Wightman Fork was polluted by heavy metals prior to Anaconda, much less Galactic, showing up. Some of this material undoubtedly resulted from historic gold mining operations, and significantly, much is undoubtedly natural, resulting from erosion of sulfide minerals in broad halos around the orebodies.

Second, both of the Galactic pits combined total less than 50 acres, not the 500 claimed in Stern’s letter. The State of Colorado says that 547 acres total have been disturbed, including all roads and the historic mine workings and dumps. This is a far cry from the “huge acid factory” blamed on the mining company’s activities. While there can be no doubt that the poorly constructed leach pond liner which leaked, allowed cyanide solution carrying copper, gold and silver to escape, the naturally acidic groundwater, soils, and bedrock quickly quenched the cyanide, resulting in precipitation of the contained metals.

It should be kept in mind that snow melt and rain water are naturally acidic and will cause sulfide minerals to form sulfuric acid, which can carry copper in solution. Give nature 12-14,000 years of erosion and watch how much copper can be carried both in solution and in rock fragments and debris such as sand, gravel and mud that make up substrate of the downstream meadows and terraces.

A brief examination of the map of the headwaters of the Alamosa River yields place names such as Gold, Silver, Treasure, Prospect, Bitter, Iron, and Jasper creeks, in addition to California Gulch, Telluride Mountain and Klondike Mountain. One does not have to be an economic geologist to realize that these names are probably the result of mineralization somewhere up that drainage. In other words, Summitville is by no means an isolated occurrence of sulfides in the headwaters of the river. As the earlier mentioned stream sediment sampling demonstrated, many if not most of the drainages contain mineralization that is producing anomalous quantities of heavy metals and have acidic water to boot.

My point in the earlier letter was that the State, reportedly under pressure from the EPA, would not allow Galactic to release treated water which contained a small amount of silver into Wightman Fork, but now that the EPA is operating the mine apparently as a for-profit venture, such releases are scientifically OK. Because Galactic’s tailwater pond was filling up as a result of the State’s ruling, the Company pulled out allowing the subsequent seizure and resulting bureaucratic sideshow to avert an “environmental disaster” that according to the Denver Post was going to result from the release of “cyanide bearing water.”

I am not trying to either defend, or to justify Galactic’s actions or its methods, nor its falsification of records to hide the leaks from the leach pond. However, to blame all the woes cited in Stern’s letter on a small point source discharge that has operated for only a few years, is pseudo-science in my opinion.

I’ll close by saying that, yes, I am a booster of hardrock mining which helps produce the 40,000 pounds of minerals consumed by each American every year. This is in large measure because I like to sleep indoors, eat regularly, have a telephone, automobile, refrigerated food, and the 100 plus metals and alloys that are contained within the computer I’m writing this on. Further, I want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to enjoy at least as high a standard of living as I do. That won’t be the case if we shut down the raw material sources for our industrial base in a misguided attempt to become a paperless “information society” inhabiting an environmentally “perfect” world that never existed in the first place.

Paul Martz Consulting Geologist Poncha Springs