CREEDE — Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser met with Creede and Mineral County community leaders and members of the Headwaters Alliance on Monday, June 7, to discuss the future of the Creede Historical Mining District, the Nelson Tunnel Superfund site and potential future water quality projects in the area.
The group gathered at the base of the Nelson Tunnel to discuss water-quality conditions and work that is being done to preserve the historical integrity of the location while continuing work on mining reclamation.
Headwaters Alliance Director Heather Greenwolf began the meeting with an explanation of the geological significance of the area as well as the heavy metals that have been contaminating the Willow Creek for several years.
“We thought that it was important to begin by having you see the Nelson Tunnel Superfund site and also to just have a chance to see this iconic historical mining site because this is probably one of the finest examples of mining architecture left in Colorado,” Greenwolf said.
Due to the efforts of Rio De La Vista, founding director of the Salazar Rio Grande Del Norte Center, with Adams State University, Weiser was invited to come and see firsthand what is being done to minimize the release of contaminated water into Willow Creek from past mining operations and to potentially help the Headwaters Alliance with funding for projects in the future.
Greenwolf briefly explained what the conditions were at the Nelson Tunnel and the regulatory roadblocks the organization was running into in order to treat the water properly and continuing reclamation efforts.
“When Rio let us know, you were able to come, we got really excited,” Greenwolf said. “This was our opportunity to show you our neighborhood and to tell you what’s going on and see what you may be able to help us with. Creede has a long history of mining, we love our mining history, we are very proud of it, and we also have a long history of reclamation work which spans about 23 years and even before that.
“Mining closed in 1987 and we had an amazing group of people called the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee that really served to advise the city and county governments at that time about what the EPA and CDPHE were going to do with this area. Initially, the work was done by the community, they adopted non-regulatory solutions to a lot of the problems and legacy mining impacts that are further up in the watershed,” added Greenwolf.
Greenwolf said the Nelson Tunnel is releasing 300 gallons per minute of acid-rich mine wastewater into Willow Creek and is the single-point source for zinc and cadmium into the Rio Grande.
“To put into a visual, it is about 200 pounds of zinc a day,” Greenwolf said. “It is not a human-safety issue, the zinc and cadmium is really problematic for aquatic life and insects.”
Greenwolf said that though there is not aquatic life near the Nelson Tunnel, fish have been found above it and in East Willow Creek, where mining impacts have been less.
Local Rio Grande Silver owner Randy McClure spoke about the continued efforts of the EPA and Headwaters to try to find a solution to the mounting issue of contaminated water coming from the Nelson Tunnel Superfund site.
“This is so exciting to talk about this because what we are trying to do is figure out how we can capture the zinc and other minerals for their monetary value,” McClure said. “It is a resource and the way it's being looked at now to be treated, is not economic and is very expensive. What we want to do is explore ways for alternative water treatment that would allow us to maybe utilize that and use the zinc for the things we need it for today.”
Weiser said there were potential funding opportunities set aside in the Rescue Plan passed by the federal government as part of the COVID Relief Funding that could be used for water infrastructure projects such as the one at Nelson Tunnel. He later advised Headwaters Alliance to pick a project that was of the most important out of all the projects that they were working on and to submit a request for funding.
Mineral County is also working with the owners of the land and historical structure around the Nelson Tunnel to hopefully restore the old buildings and structures for tourism and for the historical significance.