WATER IN THE WEST: Aurora taps troubled Breckenridge mine for liquid gold

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AURORA | In the growing, arid West, water is likened to gold. More than a metaphor, Aurora’s latest venture into collecting the region’s most precious commodity will likely come, appropriately, from an old gold mine.

The Aurora City Council this week unanimously approved spending $34 million for water rights associated with the London Mine in the mountains south of Breckenridge in Park County.

The deal, sealed with no comment or questions from council, has long been discussed in private meetings and after a great deal of planning and engineering, according to city officials.

The plan is unique and complicated, but city water officials say will be well worth the work when it’s all said and done. The closed mine holds 100,000 acre-feet of water and about 5,300 acre-feet of that can be drawn out each year.

City council, this week, approved the purchase of 1,400 acre-feet, enough for more than 10,000 residents. Aurora has the option to purchase any additional water that is developed from the mine at $21,000 per acre-foot. Potentially $125 million could be spent on water in the mine, according to the water department.

And while Aurora is purchasing the water rights, the infrastructure and work to extract the water from the mine will still be up to MineWater, which has already “reworked the plumbing” inside the mine.

The London Mine has complicated issues, said Kelly Morgan, an enforcement unit manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Her unit oversees water quality throughout the state, including the water that leaves the London and other mines.

From 1874 until the 1940s, the London Mine was one of the top-producing gold mines in the state. It also produced lead, silver and zinc. In 1991 the mine eventually closed, but a fault within the mountain created a natural reservoir, one that fills with snowmelt.

A naturally occurring process in the mine has been troublesome, however. When oxygen and water are exposed to sulfurous rocks in the nearly 70 miles of tunnels in the mine, the water is contaminated with heavy metals such as zinc, lead, and cadmium. That water flows out of the mine into the South Mosquito Creek via two tunnels.

In the nearly three decades since the mine has been closed, the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have had their eye on the mine and its previous owners. In 2009, 2011 and 2013 CDPHE cited the mine for violating the discharge permit. A treatment plan for the mine was created. But it failed. And in 2016 CDPHE slapped the owner previous to MineWater with a $1.1 million fine.

In 2014, MineWater bought 3,000 acres of the mine’s land holdings and the water rights in an agreement to also bring the discharged water up to compliance. CDPHE issued MineWater a discharge permit, which MineWater will be required to have so long as they are expelling pollutants out of London Mine.

Joe Harrington, MineWater’s president, said the company is, so far, meeting the requirements set out by CDPHE. According to state reports, “MineWater is in compliance with all corrective action requirements.” From December 2015 through December 2016 MineWater was able to decrease the amount of zinc by 76 percent and cadmium by 88 percent, according to state records.

Morgan told the Aurora Sentinel the department anticipates the water coming from London Mine will be completely within state standards by the end of 2018. The state, however, will closely monitor the mine for the foreseeable future.

The plan for the mine is two fold: extract the water for the City of Aurora,  and fix the contamination problem.

“Essentially you’ve got a mine that is having water introduced to it. This concept is to drill a couple of wells and get the water away from the mine,” Brown said. “So part of the mining activity will be removing the water before it gets exposed to the minerals in the mine and discharging it into the stream.”

As long as the water is away from the minerals, it remains unpolluted.

It’s not a concept that’s entirely new to mining, Harrington added. It’s done in nearly all major mines across the globe. It just hasn’t been done in an old, abandoned mine for the purpose of further use.

While the mine showed signs similar to those of the notorious Gold King Mine near Durango, another site Harrington worked on after it left the Animas River polluted and orange in 2015, he said by reworking the water issues inside of the mine he sees little environmental risk in drawing the water out.

As for liability, that’s on MineWater, too. It’s written into the contract between Aurora and MineWater in addition to MineWater being on the hook with the discharge permit with the state.

The arrangement between Aurora Water and MineWater is a little different, Brown admits. It’s unlike anything the city has done in the past. But Brown said the price is comparable to other projects, especially as the price of water will continue to rise.

“There is the possibility we’ll see this more often as water is a limited resources,” Brown said. “We’re having to look at all the different places we could obtain water.”