FAIRPLAY — Joe Harrington unfurls the map of the mine he owns, a once notorious source of toxic cadmium and zinc tainting water in the South Platte River basin.
He traces his finger along a 20-mile fault line, an underground wall of clay known as the London Fault that runs through the London Mine’s maze of tunnels. The mine was a major producer of gold, silver, lead and zinc from the late 1800s through the middle of the 1900s, and by the time it closed in 1991 it was the worst-polluting mine in the South Platte watershed.
Above that fault line is the Continental Divide — which jogs unexpectedly east-west along the Mosquito Range. And there, between the top of the Rocky Mountains and the dirty mine, is an underground aquifer, 900 feet deep and swollen with water backed up on that fault: billions of gallons of clean snowmelt that refreshes every winter.
The watery lode is worth more to Harrington than gold.
Solving for two problems
Harrington is a biologist, chemist and metallurgical engineer whose company, MineWater, is tapping that clean water before it percolates through the London Mine’s toxic tunnels and sweeps dangerous metals into the thirsty Front Range’s South Platte River.
“It’s incredibly simple. We drain the water pressure away from the mine so the mine workings don’t get wet and that stops the pollution,” he said, “so we are diverting the clean water around the mine.”
The simplicity of his plan — essentially drilling drinking straws into an overlooked water supply while diverting and filtering the smaller flows that trickle through the mine — enticed the city of Aurora, which last year paid Harrington $34 million for rights to about 1,400 acre-feet of his water and could spend as much as $80 million more. An acre-foot is about enough water to serve 2.5 households per year.
Aurora knew the London Mine and its water. The city, and many others, had for decades taken a pass on London Mine water, noting the flow from the long-dormant tunnel was laden with toxic metals. But Harrington took his maps to Aurora’s water developers and showed them his logical, uncomplicated plan.
“He really visualized it for us with his presentations and modeling. He showed us ‘Here’s the fault. Here’s the water. Here is how I’m going to pull that water down, and here’s how I’m going to treat the water in the mine,’” said Dawn Jewell, an Aurora water resources supervisor. “So all the sudden, we see a whole new clean water source. We were just so impressed with the simplicity of his plan.”
Jewell calls Aurora’s deal for Harrington’s water a “win, win, win.”
“It’s a win for the city because we found a large chunk of water and that doesn’t happen very often. It’s a win for the environment because he is cleaning up that mine and it’s a win for the rest of the state because we aren’t pulling water from the Western Slope and we aren’t pulling it from agriculture,” Jewell says. “It’s a water source that doesn’t take water away from anyone else. We are actually adding water to the river.”
Harrington is sure his tap-it-before-it’s-contaminated water plan can work at hundreds of mines across Colorado where clean snowmelt trickling through hundreds of miles of underground tunnels is leaching toxic chemicals into streams and rivers, wreaking havoc on riparian ecosystems.
Not all of those mines have water rights attached to property like the London Mine. But just about every dormant mine in Colorado has water backed up inside its tunnels, Harrington says.
So if a mine doesn’t have water rights, he can follow the water downstream to its owners and offer a deal.
“We can say, “Look, there’s 100 million gallons of water trapped in this mine. When do you want it?’” Harrington says. “And Denver Water or Aurora Water or the municipality says, ‘Wait, we didn’t realize we could get extra water whenever we want it.’ We pump it out and we reduce the likelihood that the mine will blow out. There are hundreds and hundreds of mines across Colorado that have water in them and they all need to be dewatered.”
Harrington acquired the mine in November 2016 from the estate of an owner facing a $925,000 penalty levied by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for draining more than 1 million gallons of tainted water into South Mosquito Creek every day. (Harrington paid a portion of the penalty when he acquired the mine and is liable for the rest once the water begins flowing.)
Carol Ekarius, the executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, said her group celebrates innovative treatments of mines that haven’t operated for decades but have polluted the South Platte’s upper basin for more than a century.
“Everybody said no to London Mine water over the last 30 to 40 years because no one wanted to take on the responsibility of having to deal with all that polluted water,” Ekarius said. “This plan makes so much sense. Trying to take down the water behind the mine just seems immensely logical. Who’d a thunk it?”
The London Mine needed a lot of work when Harrington bought it. The tunnel had collapsed and the water building behind the plugged outlet was threatening a blow-out like the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster above Silverton that sent 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River.
A couple of weeks after the blowout, Harrington built an interim filtering system for the Environmental Protection Agency at the Gold King. Harrington typically crawls deep into mines and installs his diversions, pumps and filters “in situ,” or as close to the source of the pollution as he can reach. That way he’s filtering maybe thousands of gallons of polluted water instead of millions of gallons at the end of the mine. At Gold King, however, he customized his technology to filter water at the mine’s portal.
“The EPA supports the development of new technologies and approaches that can be applied to mining sites,” said EPA Region 8 spokesman Rich Mylott in a statement. “As conditions across sites can vary greatly, our ability to make progress depends on developing new tools that can address the unique circumstances, challenges, and opportunities at individual sites.”
To prevent another Gold King, Harrington’s first job at the London Mine was to depressurize the mine tunnel. Then he crawled deep into the mine, wading through sludge that reached his hips, to install small diversion dams that move polluted water to a giant underground basin where it is filtered and treated with a process that includes adding alcohol and molasses.
Harrington buys molasses — a particular formula he created for industrial application — and periodically injects slugs of the syrup into the underground limestone cavity where he is treating acidic water pumped from the mine. The molasses encourages bacterial growth that converts the sulphates — which create a lot of the toxicity in acidic drainage — to sulphides, which react with heavy metals to stabilize them in the mine.
“I’ve been buying molasses from molasses companies for 25 years. They have a mix I made. I named it,” says the 46-year-old scientist who has become an expert at using molasses to help control heavy-metal pollution. (He’s also become an expert at keeping the sweet syrup from bears who go to great, container-shredding lengths to find the nectar.)
While he’s diverting, pumping and filtering the mine water, his crews are drilling four holes into the massive aquifer behind the mine, a lagoon estimated at more than 100,000 acre-feet, which is roughly the size of Ruedi Reservoir above Basalt.
One well reaches 1,010 feet into the ground and is pumping 1,000 gallons a minute of clean water headed for Aurora. His team is working on a 6,000-foot horizontal well that will reach even deeper into the underground water source. The siphoning and the filtering have to work together, because if he siphoned without cleaning up the mine, he could pull those nasty metals into his clean aquifer.
“We have spent more than $30 million in the last three years here, in acquiring water rights, cleaning up and drilling,” Harrington says. “We are way in deep here.”
Fighting more than pollution
Shortly after Harrington purchased the property in 2016, someone stole a 36,000-pound storage container loaded with equipment from his mine site.
A year later, vandals took a metal bar to the pump that injects alcohol into his underground water-treatment system, which sent alcohol spilling into the creek. He’s stirred some tension among locals who have long enjoyed free rein on the dormant mine’s property by limiting access to the site and its remote valley on the flanks of the Mosquito Range.
He hopes that Jeff Crane and Kate McCoy can help with that. The pair are developing a backcountry skiing operation on Harrington’s land in the adjacent valley to the north, where the North London Mill processed gold ore from the London Mine.
Crane and McCoy’s North London Mill Preservation Inc. is spending $200,000 this summer, thanks to support from the History Colorado State Historical Fund and the Gates Family Foundation, to rehabilitate the historic North London Office as a backcountry hut while the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety is planning to stabilize the 1892 mill.
Last winter Crane and McCoy hosted both backcountry skiing and history tours around the historic mining site.
“It’s been such a good relationship with Joe. He’s been supportive from the get-go and he’s really given us the freedom to imagine what can happen,” said Crane, who serves as co-executive director of the nonprofit. “We have a pretty independent, but supportive, relationship with him.”
When Harrington took ownership of the essentially abandoned mine, it was leaching more than 40 pounds of heavy metals — mostly zinc and cadmium — into the creek every day.
He’s down to about 1.6 pounds a day in the winter and about 5 pounds a day in the summer, which meets the EPA’s clean water guidelines. With the wells being drilled and the mine water treated, he’s looking around the mine’s 3,000 acres for anything else that could be polluting the watershed.
Above the mine’s rebuilt portal are mountains of ore, about 400,000 tons of crushed rock, Harrington estimates. He guesses there’s about $35 million in gold in that ore. Maybe he could truck it somewhere drier and have the gold extracted. He doesn’t want the gold. He wants the ore dumps gone. He thinks there could be 2 pounds of acidic metals leaching through those ore dumps every day.
Harrington isn’t in the business of gold. He’s mining the West’s new gold: clean water.
“We are trying to identify and fix as many sources of pollution as we can,” he says. “Water is our future. It’s the sustainable resource we all need.”