River group seeks solution

Problem-solvers tapped for mine drainage fix

The Animas River Stakeholders Group is turning to the brilliant minds of the world to find a solution to controlling toxic waste leaking from abandoned hard-rock mines around Silverton.

The problem will be turned over to InnoCentive, a Boston firm that has 260,000 individual “solvers” eager to tackle challenges in chemistry, food production, business, engineering, information technology and physical and life sciences.

Members of the stakeholder steering committee Wednesday devised a tentative agenda outlining problems they want to solve. The group will meet again within a month to refine its proposal.

“InnoCentive has all these problem-solvers who think out of the box and check in looking for a challenge,” committee member Bill Simon said. “In the end, the solution is ours to use.”

The problem-solver and InnoCentive get paid, and it isn’t cheap, Simon said. But acidic drainage from mines is a worldwide problem, which could win financial support from mining interests, environmental groups and government agencies.

Simon cited the call that went out in 2006 for a biomarker to measure the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease for which there is no known cure.

A $1 million prize was awarded last year to a researcher who invented a valid, clinically viable biomarker, Simon said.

The cited solution took awhile, but many answers are found in months instead of years, said Simon, who is the committee liaison to InnoCentive.

The Animas River Stakeholders Group formed in 1994 to head off possible control of mine cleanup by the government.

Scores of contaminated waste sites and mine tailings have been removed or buried to prevent leaching. But tackling water issues is more serious because liability is ongoing in case someone sues and wins.

Today, four mines – Sunnyside, Mogul, Gold King No. 7 and Red & Bonita – send up to 800 gallons a minute of iron, zinc, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, manganese and aluminum into Cement Creek, a tributary to the Animas River at Silverton.

The stream is so toxic that biologists think the water never sustained aquatic life.

Past efforts to stem the flow have not done the job. An electrochemical process tested in September will be reconfigured and applied in the spring.

The steering committee on Wednesday saw three immediate dimensions to a remediation plan – on-site treatment of water, removal of metal from effluent and disposal or recovery of the metals.

Several related issues were discussed, including a solution that would not preclude the renewal of mining around Silverton.


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