Cleaning up Akron Mine

Akron mine tailings loom over Tomichi Creek

By Jason Willis

Tomichi Creek is a tributary of the Gunnison River that flows from the historic mining town of White Pine, Colorado, on the west side of Monarch Pass at an elevation over 9,000 feet. The upper portion of the Tomichi Creek drainage has potential to be a productive trout fishery, even though toxic sediment loading from the abandoned Akron mine site has historically had a damaging effect on the trout populations. 

The upper Tomichi Creek watershed is a beautiful area, only about 50 minutes from my house in Salida. Driving the first eight miles of the watershed north of US Highway 50, you see a broad, lush valley with a gorgeous, meandering stretch of Tomichi Creek.  As you progress up the drainage on a dirt road, you reach a USFS boundary and Snowblind campground around mile marker 9, where the mountains begin to encroach and pinch down the previous wide valley.  The channel changes to a higher gradient system mixed with sections of meandering channel between beaver dams. 

A few years ago, I would frequent the area to ride mountain bikes on the Canyon Creek trail, and always noticed the Akron Mine near the beginning of the ride with its large waste rock and mine tailings piles that abutted more than 1,000 feet of Tomichi Creek. This eyesore looked out of place in such a pristine watershed, and it motivated me to find a way to get involved and clean this mine up. 

Now that may sound irrational to some, but cleaning up pollution from abandoned mines is a big part of my job at Trout Unlimited. 

In 2014, the opportunity came to get involved when I was asked by a couple of agency colleagues from U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to help electrofish at two sites along Tomichi. The downstream site was adjacent to the private Tomichi Mill site, while the upper site was directly along those 40-foot-tall Arkon Mine waste piles that I so fondly remembered. One of the brown trout--a wily veteran--eluded my colleague’s fishing rod before he was ultimately caught by the electric waves of the backpack shocker. (Side note: no fish were harmed during the shocking event, which essentially stuns them for a long enough period of time to be netted, weighed and measured.) 

To my surprise, the study showed a combination of brook and brown trout at approximately 480 fish per hectare. It was more encouraging than I expected. The presence of brown trout was especially encouraging, because they are more sensitive than brook trout to toxic metals typically present in waters influenced by acid rock drainage (ARD). 

While the fish survey results were surprising, we knew that the continual erosion and leaching of contaminated sediment intoTomichi Creek was impacting the long-term health of the fishery. Moreover, heavy OHV use on and around the site raised concerns about riders' exposure to dust containing heavy metals. Both goals--improving a fishery and protecting human health--drove the eventual cleanup of the Akron and Tomichi mine sites.  

I kept tabs on the project in 2015 after work began by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the Akron and Tomichi mine sites. Then, randomly, in the late summer 2015, I was approached by a colleague with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) about the possibility of applying unused grant funds by the end of the calendar year to project work. 

Not one to turn down money, or the opportunity, I reached out to the USFS about partnering on the next phase of work on the North Pile at Akron, with the catch of beginning work a season early. Project partners already had the design in place and the contractor was mobilized, so we were able to continue working until the snow flew in November of that year. The $250,000 in funding from NFF was a huge boost to the project and jumpstarted work at the North Pile. As you can see in the above photo, there was no shortage of work to do as evidenced by the large volumes of multicolored waste rock and tailings. 

As we began work, I started to realize the magnitude and scale of the project I was about to embark on.  This would be the largest “dirt moving” project of my career, which was a bit intimidating. My concerns slowly dissipated because I was surrounded by a great cast of contractors and project partners that had a deep knowledge of the site. This is one takeaway that most should realize is the fact that mine clean-up projects are expensive and resemble a moving target.  There is no easy, one-stop-shop solution for these types of projects. 

The best way to tackle these tough projects is with collaboration, whether it be between federal agencies, private landowners, state agencies, or nonprofits.  The “two-heads is better than one” idea really works in this application. This is something that I’ve learned over the years and fully try to incorporate with every one of my projects. 

As I mentioned, we safely closed the site up when the snow started flying in November 2015, with plans to resume construction the following field season.  

During this time, TU and USFS teamed up through an existing agreement between our organizations that would allocate funding to TU for 2016 construction management, oversight, and floodplain design. This allowed for myself and a fellow TU engineer to provide input on floodplain stability and in-stream habitat structures to be included in the design. These would be essential pieces to the puzzle, since 60 to 80 feet of floodplain would be created along 1,000 feet of Tomichi Creek where there currently wasn’t one. 

Construction on Phase 2 of the North Pile began in July 2016 and concluded in early September. RMC Consultants was again hired as the prime contractor and really made the project a reality. A good operator, as in the case of the Akron project, can make or break a project’s success. I always appreciate  a contractor who will “place this rock here” and “place that willow there” with no apprehensions! Speaking of willows, we dug up and transplanted over 150 whole willows to the newly developed floodplain for stability and habitat to go along with log and rock structures. Work went smoothly over the two-month construction window, and included the following restoration activities:

  • Approximately 127,000 cubic yards (CY) of mine waste and tailings were relocated and/or consolidated.
  • 60-80 feet of clean floodplain created along a 1,100-foot section of Tomichi Creek. 
  • 1,100 ft. rock toe added at base of repository.
  • Over 150 willow bulb transplants installed in floodplain.
  • 196 riparian plugs planted in floodplain to add species diversity.
  • 13 acres of native seed applied with biosol, 600 cubic yards of manure, and 200 cubic yards of biosolids/compost across site.
  • Adit (mine opening) water re-routed into locally sourced riprap channel. This water now flows on clean material between repositories to prevent future chances of contamination.

The following photos provide examples of before and after conditions at the North Pile of the Akron mine. As you can see, the change post-restoration was dramatic: 


North pile: before (top photo); after (bottom)



Looking across the creek: Before (top photo) and after (bottom) 

Construction costs for Phase 1 were $190,340, while Phase 2 costs were $272,404, for a North Pile project total of $462,744 for on-the-ground work.

I'm proud that the project was also recently awarded an Honor Award from Region 2 of the USFS for Sustaining our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands. Receiving this award was a big deal for me, given the history of the project and close proximity to home. I feel very humbled to work with such great people on mine restoration projects like this across Colorado, and hope to continue to improve our nation’s cold water fisheries and their water quality.

My involvement with the project began with a backpack shocker, and will hopefully end that way—or with a fishing rod as a substitute!     

Jason Willis is TU’s mine restoration project manager in Colorado.



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