The Bandora Mine is just one of an undetermined number of inactive mines in San Juan County at risk of a blowout. Yet what makes the danger of this collapsed portal particularly of concern: a popular campground is in its path.
“It would only be a matter of 15 to 30 minutes before it reached South Mineral Campground,” said Bill Simon, a founder of the Animas River Stakeholders Group who retired in October.
Simon has worried for years that the loose pile of dirt and rocks that cover the entrance to the Bandora Mine – about nine miles west of Silverton on Forest Service Road 585 – could give way and flood the campground that sits beside South Fork Mineral Creek.
“It could be a real mess,” he said. “There could be serious injury.”
The most recent data show the mine is discharging at a rate of about 35 gallons per minute, and it’s high in zinc and manganese. But what’s built up behind the portal is anyone’s guess.
“That’s the thing: We just don’t know about these old abandoned mines,” Simon said. “It’s almost identical to the Gold King in that respect.”
Kirstin Brown, a reclamation specialist with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said an inspection last year showed evidence that the water inside the mine is spilling out at an elevation higher than the floor of the workings.
“That’s bad,” she said. “There is water backed up. How much? I don’t know. But every mine with water backed up could have the potential to blow out.”
Brown provided a rough estimate that there could be at least 5,000 feet of workings in the Bandora Mine – for reference, the Gold King Mine has about 7,000 feet – yet not enough research has been done to say conclusively how much water pressure is behind the entrance.
No remediation work has been performed on the Bandora Mine, which produced gold and silver off and on from 1890 to 1940. The mine is now owned by Stith Mining LLC, based in Montgomery, Alabama, which purchased Bandora in 1990 along with eight other claims for $24,900 from Colorado National Bank. Company officials could not be reached for comment on this story.
Simon said the stakeholder’s group a few years ago was awarded a grant to work on the Bandora Mine, which sits at an elevation of 10,961 feet with no road access. But because of liability issues, the group ultimately nixed the project.
The Bandora Mine is, however, listed as one of 48 mining-related sites that are part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Superfund listing – the Bonita Peak Mining District – which would have the protections to undertake cleanup efforts.
“Agency staff will be reaching out to learn more about the concerns,” EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham wrote in an email. “EPA is also working with the U.S. Forest Service to gain access to Bandora Mine, so we can assess conditions at the site.”
The 26 camping sites at South Mineral Campground are maintained by the U.S. Forest Service within the San Juan National Forest, which is aware of the risks, a spokesman for the agency said Wednesday.
“This is on our radar,” Lawrence Lujan, with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Office, wrote in an email. “We are monitoring the situation with our partners.”
According to the Forest Service, the campground – about two miles away from the mine – has around 6,500 annual visitors from Memorial Day through mid-September.
Currently, there are no markers indicating the campground’s vulnerability. However, Lujan wrote that if studies from the Superfund effort reveal high risks of a blowout at Bandora, the Forest Service would consider installing warning signs.
In a somewhat similar situation in Leadville, the EPA successfully prevented disaster in 2008 by installing a pump that relieved pressure built up behind a mine drainage tunnel, which commissioners there said posed an ‘imminent and substantial’ danger to the Arkansas Valley watershed.
Bruce Stover, the recently retired director of abandoned mines reclamation, told the Colorado Foundation of Water Education at that time the potential risk trumped whether there was an immediate risk.
“If there were a blowout,” he said. “It would be a disaster for the Arkansas (River).”
San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier, a former miner, dismissed any such threat to public health, claiming the Bandora Mine workings are not big enough to hold an amount water that would swell over the banks of South Fork Mineral Creek.
“It wouldn’t be catastrophic,” Fetchenhier said. “I’d be more worried about a flood type event than anything with the mines.”
Still, Simon said assumptions are risky business. He said the first step would be to drill above the portal and monitor the water pressure behind the mine, which would indicate if something like an alert system is warranted.
Though, he cautioned crews to not to set off any blowouts in doing so.
This article has been updated to correct the title and spelling of reclamation specialist Kirstin Brown.