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Mine clean-up nearly complete at Hope Mine near Aspen

Sep 15, 2015

These photos depict reclamation work at the Hope Mine, a former silver mining site outside of Aspen.
Credit ACES/aspennature.org

For years the Forest Service has been working to keep mine tailings from an abandoned silver mine from getting into Castle Creek. The long-defunct Hope Mine is tucked between the creek and Castle Creek Road. Work to return the area back to its natural state is now nearly complete. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Work began in 2009 to reclaim the steep hillside in the picturesque Castle Creek Valley. It’s on Forest Land. But, I didn’t visit the site until 2011.

That’s when Forest Service officials partnered with local non profit groups on an experiment. The idea was to use biochar and compost to revegetate the area and prevent toxic metals from leaching into Castle Creek. Biochar acts like a sponge for toxins. It’s carbon-rich dehydrated wood that often comes from beetle-kill trees.

"This was an emergency project," said Scott Snelson. He was district ranger for the White River National Forest in 2011. "It was hoped we could hold the slope with this treatment as opposed to pulling or excavating out the contours. If this doesn’t turn out to stabilize the slope to satisfaction, that’s likely what we’ll end up doing."

The biochar was helpful. But, just as Snelson predicted, more work was needed. Jamie Cundiff is Forest Programs Director for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

"The Forest Service decided that it didn’t want to risk the whole hillside failing and falling into Castle Creek, so they decided to mechanically stabilize the hillside. So in a year’s time, biochar wasn’t enough to stabilize the hillside but it was incredibly successful in revegetating the hillside.”

ACES merged with the non profit For the Forest that partnered with the Forest Service in 2011 at the Hope Mine.

Before work started, the two acre area was littered with toxic mine tailings left over from unsuccessful mining activity that began around 1915 and lasted until the 1940s.

In addition to the biochar application, the Forest Service did asbestos abatement, removed old structures and mine debris, and stabilized the stream bank. Olivia Garcia is the abandoned mines and lands coordinator for the White River National Forest. She says the agency collected seeds from the area as one of its final steps.

"Those seeds were grown over the winter, so the work that we’ll be doing this year is to actually put some plants, shrubs and forbs in the ground that will assist in further stability of the site."

The plants are scheduled to go in the ground later this month.

"The goal with all the vegetation there is to minimize the erosion. So, the potential problem that we had originally is no longer a concern. It’s going to blend in just like the rest of the forest. It’s meant to mimic the forest in its natural setting.”

The Hope Mine may be nearly restored, but Garcia says there are many other abandoned mines on the White River National Forest that pose hazards.

"With the Hope Mine, the problem was the mine waste. Some of the other abandoned mines we have have open features such as horizontal or vertical openings, called mine shafts that are a public safety concern. Others pose an environmental concern.”

She says the hazards are addressed by priority and the Forest Service heavily depends on partners like the state and EPA for help with mitigation.