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Summitville Mine and its Downstream Effects

The Summitville gold mine, located at approximately 3800 meters (11,500 ft) elevation in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, was the focus of extensive public attention in 1992 and 1993 due to environmental problems stemming from open-pit mining activities. Summitville catalyzed national debates about the environmental effects of modern mining activities, and became the focus of arguments for proposed revisions to the 1872 Mining Law governing mining activities on public lands. In early 1993, the State of Colorado, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Colorado State University, San Luis Valley agencies, downstream water users, private companies, and individuals began a multidisciplinary investigation to provide needed scientific information on Summitville's environmental problems and downstream environmental effects.

Results of this investigation demonstrate the crucial need for scientific information that can be used for predicting, assessing, and remediating the environmental effects of mining. The Summitville investigation shows how geologic and geochemical information can be used in the future to more effectively anticipate and mitigate potential environmental effects of mining for metals. Similarly, a careful consideration of geologic and geochemical characteristics (and their controls on hydrology and acid-drainage formation) is needed to help refine and anticipate the effectiveness of remedial measures at mining sites. In the assessment of Summitville's downstream environmental effects, science studies contribute much by:

  • providing a scientific evaluation of the actual, rather than perceived, environmental problems and their effects;
  • showing that natural environmental effects of other mineralized areas must also be considered; and
  • showing that Summitville's effects on aquatic life, agriculture, and wetlands ecosystems can best be understood only when examined in an integrated geologic, hydrologic, geochemical, and biological context.

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