Friday, June 12, 2009


Mountain stream water is not supposed to be orange. Yet, the water flowing out of the Commodore Mine’s Nelson Tunnel portal and into West Willow Creek (which, in turn empties into the mighty Rio Grande about a mile and a half later) about one mile north and upstream from Creede, CO makes the adjective “rusty” seem quaint. “Intriguing”, “repulsive”, and “toxic” seem more appropriate.

As a runner whose preferred environment is the alpine landscapes of Colorado, I have been an unfortunate witness to innumerable examples of this type of water due to Colorado’s rich mining history. Most of my favorite launching pads for trail runs in this state—Leadville, Aspen, Silverton, Ouray—began as mining boom towns where environmental concerns (The mountains are so big! We could never permanently mess them up!) couldn’t be bothered with when there was so much money to make.

As a result, waste rock from mines was piled where ever was most convenient and watershed hydrology was never even considered. In the case of the Commodore Mine in Creede—as with all kinds of mines all over the Mountain West—thousands upon thousands of cubic yards of waste material was dumped directly into West Willow Creek where exposure to air and water oxidizes the iron pyrite (FeS2) and other sulfides in the ore resulting in extremely acidic creek water (typically a pH of 3 or 4) that in turn sends the heavy metals in the waste rock (all sorts of frightening stuff: zinc, lead, copper, cadmium, manganese, even arsenic) into solution where it then flows downstream and typically disallows the existence of any kind of significant organic life. Vegetation and fish cease to exist. The water is clearly unfit for human consumption. It can’t even be used to irrigate crops as it kills the crops and/or collects in them in unhealthy levels. Fun stuff.

This sort of blowback from Colorado’s mining heritage makes mining easy to hate. However, the fact is, mining is an integral part of human history in the state, and most towns’ historical identities revolve around it. This cannot easily be ignored or trivialized. Nevertheless, it also doesn’t do anything about the ongoing ecological disasters that continue to occur across the state.

Now, as part of my becoming a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I will be spending the next two years learning a lot and ultimately contributing to the reclamation of Creede’s Commodore Mine by parsing out the finer details of the hydrology of the West Willow Creek watershed and ultimately of the Commodore Mine itself. The goal is to come up with a sustainable, workable solution to stopping the flow of acidic water out of the mine and into the creek.

Creede, like many Colorado mining towns, is a visually stunning place. The region’s extensive historical volcanic activity has resulted in a landscape of towering volcanic tuff cliffs that are several hundred feet tall, idyllic aspen-covered mountains, and roiling mountain streams that is all located at the foot of the impossibly high reaches of the snow-capped Continental Divide a few miles out of town.

The mountain running is outstanding. The town itself sits at 8800’ on the banks of the Rio Grande River. The single track Wason trail is available one block off of Main Street and climbs immediately into the surrounding mountains. Within 1h15 I was above treeline in Wason Park—a strange, perfectly flat tundra plateau at 11,800’—and marveling at the cloud-enshrouded reaches of La Garita Peak (13,707') and the Continental Divide directly in front of me as a herd of a dozen elk galloped away from me across the massive meadow.

Additonally, Creede--for an old mining town--has a pretty vibrant tourism industry. Although only about 300 people live there, the town maintains a downtown/Main Street with varied shops and classic, old Victorian buildings and there is even a fair bit of culture. There are a number of art galleries, but the main draw is the historic Creede Repertory Theatre. I look forward to going back.

My participation in this project is not an accident. It is all motivated by my deep connection and appreciation for the mountains that I am privileged enough to run in on a daily basis, and I expect that working to improve the health of those mountain’s watersheds—all while learning, respecting, and preserving the cultural history endemic to the region—will be as fulfilling an activity as actually running through them.


Charlie said...

Good post. I've always enjoyed the heritage of a mining town and appreciate the history, but they had no idea what kind of impact their actions would have on the environment.
Even today, I think our economists have a hard time looking past the quarter. Environmentalism seems to be breaking into mainstream these days (media mostly) but "going green" is only the tip of the ice berg. I want our world to be just as beautiful when my son has kids of his own. And that will take alot more than just buying hybrids, or carrying re-fillable water bottles.

Ben said...

Well said.

Michael said...

Good luck Anton! Thanks for actually practicing your values...

Much respect,

Michael Alfred said... what about Western States?

Local Mind Media said...

Thanks for a great post. I love learning about small western towns, so I appreciate the first-hand insight.

Hope you're healing up well and really hope to see you at Leadville.

bagdaddy said...

I appreciate the post. I actually work as an engineer at a mine in a small town in arizona. There are tons of old mines around the area and I love checking them out on my runs. However, there are many environmental issues with these old mines because there simply were no rules. Kudos to mining companies that pour millions of dollars into reclaimation of these old sites. I can personally attest to the fact that mining has many rules (See CFR on mining). Our mine has more environmental engineers than mining engineers. Good luck with your work. Let me know if you have any questions on mining.

ps. How do you do it? How do you pay for school and run and travel around the country so much. I want to run and adventure full time but I just dont how to do it.

Anton said...

WS is out, as I'm sure many people have been speculating. Though I really really hate the idea of not being able to meaningfully compete in a race with such a deep field, I know that it will be there next year. I'm very close to completely healthy right now, but that has only occurred in the past week. The last 2 months I've been able to do only very limited running, and exclusively FLAT. I'm not going to run any race I don't feel prepared for, especially if there is a great chance for further injury. I would be way way underprepared if I were to run the WS100.

Good luck at Bighorn and if that goes well I hope you consider giving the LT100 another shot yourself! It's definitely my goal race at this point, but more importantly I just want to remain healthy and consistent...not running is unspeakably depressing for me. Not racing on the other hand...well, most days I really couldn't be bothered.

Simple means, my friend. A lot of people probably think I have a trust fund or something, but, with parents that are a farmer and a schoolteacher, I can assure you that is NOT the case! As someone in the sciences, not only is school paid for, I actually get paid (quite well by my standards) to go to grad school. Other than that, it's just me saving what money I do earn (working in running stores and coffeehouses) to spend on the things that are truly important to me. Oh yeah, and I live out of my truck in the summers.


bagdaddy said...

Haha. Thats kinda what I thought but I wanted to make sure there wasn't some government sponsored trust fund out there I was missing out on. I made the mistake of amassing debt to go to college. You have the right idea- Eliminate and reduce anything that is not needed. It's just less stressful that way. Coworkers think I'm crazy for not having tv or internet. I think theyre the crazy ones wasting their lives. They simply lack imagination.

Rogue Valley Runners said...

Tony- I need you to survey the area for potential RVR satellite stores, we don't want you to be living out of that truck for too many more summers.

Jealous of your new opportunities.


Andy B. said...

Good luck with your grad work. It sounds like an interesting project, and potentially very rewarding too. The opportunity to have a lasting impact on the community and environment is cool, and I'm sure the more than the people will be pleased - hopefully native trout will be able to return to the watershed after you are done. That would provide additional tourism opportunities for the locals.

Hope your recovery continues on its' speedy path.

JeffO said...

If you need a layman volunteer to help out in some capacity at Creede, let me know. I majored in Geology in College (but I dropped-out of college). I've been interested in how to use nature to clean nature. Kind of like they did on Red Mtn Pass.

In some ways, things are much better than they used to be. The mountains were stripped of trees in Victorian times. Firewood, railroad ties, housing, mine-shoring timbers, ore mills, etc. made timber/lumber almost as profitable as mining. Even pine beetles and forest fires can't return us to that sad state again. But there's obviously so much more work left to do, and the cleanup isn't profitable. So no one wants to step up to the plate.

Coolrunnings said...

Mining appears to continue to be a thriving business in the rockies. There is a study being done by Thompson Creek Metals for an underground(are there any other kind?) molybdenum mine at Mt Emmons outside of Crested Butte. I hiked that mountain once and remember being startled, much to my family's amusement, by a pair of mule deer that bounded out of an old mine bldg. Anyway, it seems there are alot more environmental considerations today, hopefully not all just window dressing.
Run well Tony.

Unknown said...

anton,do you have some sort of sponsership deal with new balance?? i read in your comment to spanish that you pretty much get by (like the rest of us) but being probably top 5 ultrarunners in a sport that is gaining alot of popularity and more so bringing in alot of money to companies from guys like you wearing certain shoe/clothes.i dont understand why a company like NB wouldnt sign you to some sort of contract?where you could just focus on your running ..they had over 1.5 billion in revenues last year.

Anton said...

Yes, I do have a sponsorship deal/contract with NB.

And, actually, most mining these days ISN'T underground (unlike hardrock miners of yore) because it's so cost-prohibitive. Most mining is open-pit, for instance, the Climax molybdenum mine northeast of Leadville or the Cripple Creek gold mine west of COS.

Coolrunnings said...

An interesting mining tidbit...My property in NY State which is a rural residential area, and I believe the entire county, came with an encumbrance maintaining all mineral mining rights to the original English patent holders of the lands. To this day, the Philipse family may mine underneath my proerty but may not enter through the surface. I wonder how common this kind of situation may be? The entire region is dotted with old mines, mostly magnetite, and some mica.

Anton said...


This is a HUGE issue in the Mountain West. Mineral/resource rights are sold/owned completely separately from land/property/real estate.

One example: in Colorado's San Luis Valley there's currently a big uproar about a Canadian oil/gas company that wants to drill for natural gas in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge there because they own the mineral rights there even though they don't own the land. Craziness.

Michael Alfred said...

Thanks for the response. You are kind of a personal hero of mine. I defend you on other blogs when people don't give you enough credit. I'm headed up to see Western States this year for the first time. I was hoping to see you run but I'll catch you at the next one. I'm probably going to move to Colorado once I sell my current company and I look forward to running with you at some point.

Anonymous said...

as a teacher( best running career choice ever alongside many other joys of life) i think many students under-estimate the power of living a more simple lifestyle. Often times many associate that with being a pauper, but having gone through undergrad, grad and post grad, it is very possible to be debt free. Find a school that is affordable (D111 state school) for me, and work in the summers payed off tuition. No debt. First things most colleges want is either your credit card # or some loan that you'll be paying interest on for an eternity. Of course they never tell you these things. Anton's approach is impressionable, ideal, and tactful.

Anonymous said...

Coolrunnings and Anton

FYI: Property rights are often considered a bundle of rights such as the mineral rights, the development rights, the right to exclude others, the right to sell, and the rights to the air and sun above. Any of these rights may be sold independently of the others(i.e. land trusts often buy development rights, mining companies often buy mineral rights).

As an MS student in hydrogeology I was recently studying the potential impacts of coal fly ash on water quality in response to the Kingston fly ash spill here in Tennessee. It seems that there are quite a few studies (both column and field) examining the potential use of coal fly ash to neutralize mine tailings. Maybe worth looking at.

Sorry to nerd out, but this post has managed to encompass three interests of mine: land-use regulations, contaminant hydrology, and ultrarunning. What are the chances?


Coolrunnings said...

You'd think that since coal fly ash contain dioxins, condensed radioactive material, chromium VI and quartz it would add to the local contamination? Are you thinking of a contained system using the coal ash as sort of a charcoal filter?
Is the goal to actually stop the flow of water from the mine or neutralize the unfavorable elements leaving the mine? Oh, and you drink from Mt streams whilst running? How do you know which are clean; is there a general rule elevation wise?

Anton said...

Good stuff; thanks for the info.

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