High in the San Juan Mountains, north of Silverton, a small, makeshift trailer is churning with new, promising technology that may have implications for treating mine pollution throughout the West.
“It’s a totally different concept,” said Bill Simon of the Animas River Stakeholders Group. “If indeed the process works the way it’s said to work, it should be very beneficial in saving money and reducing the carbon footprint of treating mine wastewater.”
In the days after the 2015 Gold King Mine spill, Peter Butler, also of the ARSG, said the group was flooded with calls from companies that claimed they had the solution to treating toxic discharges from leaking mines.
It wasn’t a rare occurrence. Over the years, ARSG has been the recipient of multiple suitors hoping to have the answer to cleaning up the West’s legacy of hard rock mining and the toll it now takes on ecosystems.
But one company, Texas-based Green Age Technologies, was adamant its new technology could be a game-changer after the Gold King Mine spill, which sent 3 million gallons of mine waste down the Animas and San Juan rivers, caught national attention.
In September 2015, ARSG received another call from Green Age. Apparently, company representatives had packed up their equipment on a trailer and made the nearly 15-hour drive from Tyler, a town east of Dallas.
“They didn’t want to take no for an answer,” Butler said.
Nearly two years later, Green Age has been given the green light to embark on a pilot project for two weeks this summer to test its water treatment technology on highly polluted waters from a mine tunnel north of Silverton.
The company’s patented technology, so far, has shown potential almost too good to be true, several officials said, and has many wondering whether this could be the new standard for treating acidic discharges from leaking mines.
“It’s a process we had never heard of,” Butler said. “I don’t think even they understand what they were doing.”
Andy Evalds, CEO of Green Age, hasn’t quite gotten used to the chill of high country summers, even though his company’s two-week stint at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet is nearing its end.
On Wednesday, Evalds said Green Age got its start in the oil fields of Texas, treating fracking fluids through a new process the company developed using cavitation, which is able to separate dissolved substances from water.
But when oil prices dropped in 2015, so too did the opportunities for work. So when a physicist in Pagosa Springs called Evalds’ attention to the Gold King Mine spill and wondered if that same technology could be applied to treating mine waste, he went all in.
“We saw an opportunity, showed up and said, ‘We’re here to clean your water,’” he said.
The Animas River Stakeholders Group, intrigued by the new process, was able to put Green Age in touch with a mine owner near Ouray who allowed the company to treat discharges out of his mine, which yielded early, promising success.
Word of the company’s new treatment process eventually caught the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management, which allowed small-scale testing throughout the Animas watershed.
This summer, Green Age spent two weeks treating about 3.5 gallons per minute of acidic discharges from the American Tunnel, the drainage for the vast Sunnyside Mine network.
There, promising results endorsed the idea this treatment method may become the norm.
“They’ve improved a lot, and it’s the same basic premise,” Butler said.
For years, the standard for treating acidic mine wastewater has been a lime treatment plant. The process is highly effective at improving water quality, but has major downsides. Mostly, it’s expensive.
A lime treatment plant adds lime to polluted waters, which raises the pH so that toxic, dissolved metals become solids and can settle in settling ponds.
However, what’s left is a massive amount of sludge. A small amount of the sludge, about 5 percent, is the actual detrimental metals. The other 95 percent is the lime.
The cost – and carbon footprint – for hauling the lime in, removing the sludge and keeping a plant in operation adds up. The temporary plant in Silverton, which cost $1.5 million to build, costs an estimated $1,040,000 a year to operate.
All this, in perpetuity.
Green Age, on the other hand, uses a system that requires no chemicals and relatively low amounts of energy. And, the metals that are captured can be repurposed for bricks, roads and other uses.
At the Ouray mine, for instance, Green Age’s plant was capturing 100 pounds of aluminum a day. “That’s a lot of cans,” said Evalds, hinting at the opportunity to capitalize on those resources.
Cavitation, which Evalds calls the “secret sauce” of the water treatment plant, is a moderately simple process, relative to the world of physicists. It’s not so easy to spell out in laymen terms.
Essentially, Green Age’s technology implodes molecules, which gives off heat and pops the solids out of the water.
Early testing showed the process removed 90 to 95 percent of undesirable metals out of the water.
Green Age’s small-scale testing has showed promising signs, but Evalds recognizes the major leap entailed in engineering a large-scale facility. He said the company would like to have a core prototype that can handle 100 gallons per minute, which can be expanded upon for mines with larger inflows.
Evalds didn’t have exact numbers on potential costs but said they would be significantly less than a lime treatment plant.
North of Silverton, the temporary treatment plant continues to treat discharges out of the Gold King Mine at a rate of about 650 gpm, removing about 90 percent of heavy metals. But still, mine waste from adjacent mines, such as the Mogul, Red & Bonita and American Tunnel, continue to tumble by.
The EPA, in the days leading up to an official Superfund listing in the fall of 2016, reassured a wary community in Silverton that the agency would be open-minded to new technologies. It was one of the platforms that finally swayed the town, which had been opposed to the designation for almost two decades.
“EPA supports the use of innovative technologies at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site,” a spokesperson said Thursday. “We are eager to see the results of the tests being conducted (by Green Age).”
And it appears the agency has made good on that promise so far.
“I think EPA is willing to embrace something if it can be proven that it works,” said Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner. “Lime treatment plants are dinosaurs … so I’m really hoping they can pull it off.”
The outflow of acidic water from mines is a problem not exclusive to Southwest Colorado. Across the globe, waterways are affected by the legacy of hard rock mining, so any additional tool in the toolbox is welcomed.
“It’s huge; the problem is worldwide,” said ARSG’s Simon. “It’s so pervasive in the mining industry that it needs to be understood and technology developed. Some of the technology is out there, but the innovation is necessary.”
Green Age’s Evalds hopes his company’s technology becomes a major part of that solution. But for now, he’s keeping his sights modest.
“We’re hoping to have a permanent installation (in Silverton) next year,” he said.