French Gulch Remediation Opportunities Group (FROG)

Posted: Sep 2, 2005
Written by: 
Jane Braxton Little

Town of Breckenridge and Summit County, Colorado.

Objective: To clean up heavy metal contamination from the Wellington-Oro Mine in and around French Gulch, and to acquire mining company property for community open space and affordable housing.

Participants: B & B Mines, Blue River Water Commissioner, Colorado Department of Public Health, District Attorney's Office, Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, Summit County Commissioners, Summit County Environmental Health, Summit County Planning Department, Summit County Water Quality Committee, Town of Breckenridge, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Upper Blue Planning Commission.

History: Before the Colorado Gold Rush, French Gulch was a healthy stream teeming with Colorado cutthroat trout as it cascaded into the Blue River on its way to the Colorado River, just west of the Continental Divide. When miners arrived in the Rocky Mountains in the 1850s, it didn't take them long to discover the mineral wealth hidden under the forested slopes. "Tom's Baby," the largest gold nugget in Colorado, was found in French Gulch. Lead, zinc, silver, and gold were all extracted from an extensive network of tunnels dug into the steep valley sides. Floating dredge boats searching for placer gold dredged up the creek bottom and dumped the waste rock on the banks.

Underground, the Oro and Wellington mines dominated the hunt for wealth. In 1903, they were connected and mining operations were consolidated. By 1934, the Wellington-Oro Mine included a labyrinth of over 12 miles of tunnels. B & B Mines acquired the properties in the 1940s, leasing it to various operators who mined on and off until 1973. Over its lifetime, the Wellington-Oro produced $20 million worth of gold, silver, lead, and zinc.

 Wellington-Oro Mine drainage
Photo courtesy of US Environmental Protection Agency
The mining activity was devastating for French Gulch. Hundreds of acres of aquatic and riparian habitat were destroyed by waste rock from dredging and ore processing. Once mining operations ceased, water laden with leached minerals began seeping out of the tunnels and into the stream. The combination of heavy-metal contamination - including zinc concentrations 5,000 times the level upstream of the mine - and loss of habitat all but annihilated the fish life in the creek below the mine and in a segment of the Blue River north of Breckenridge. Around the Wellington-Oro Mill site, elevated concentrations of lead, arsenic, and other surface wastes posed a human health hazard.

By 1995, federal and state agency officials had compiled enough information about the environmental destruction at the French Gulch mine site to begin cleaning it up, and were considering listing the Wellington-Oro Mine as a Superfund site to gain access to the funding they knew it would require. That caught the attention of local officials. They feared a repeat of the top-down and often harrowing Superfund process that was playing out in nearby Leadville and other historic mining communities. From a local perspective, the EPA imposed mandates that often stripped small towns of power and limited their choices. To prevent that, Breckenridge and Summit County leaders organized to help gather information, identify funding sources, and develop cleanup strategies. They called themselves the French Gulch Remediation Opportunities Group, shortened to FROG in a droll reference to the historic name of the creek that was their focus. FROG's first goal was to address water quality and other environmental issues stemming from the mine.

Beyond the immediate environmental goals, the local leaders involved in cleaning up the Wellington-Oro Mine saw an opportunity to address two additional community needs: affordable housing and open space. Both issues had major ramifications for the burgeoning Breckenridge ski resort area. In a pattern typical of many gateway communities, local workers were being squeezed out of the area by the $725,000 median cost for a single-family home. For many in Breckenridge, the American dream of home ownership was only available across Hoosier Pass, a 45-minute commute over treacherous mountain roads. Breckenridge and Summit County leaders were also concerned about development of the 1,800-acre B & B Mines property in a hodge-podge of unregulated and unplanned subdivisions.

In a decision that required both vision and courage, they agreed to acquire the mine property from B & B Mines. Working with mine, state and federal agency officials, Breckenridge and Summit County leaders began negotiating a purchase agreement that would prevent development on the property now zoned for over 100 individual parcels. In exchange for acquiring the land, they wanted for back-country open space, the town and county agreed to assume responsibility for cleaning up the acid mine runoff polluting French Gulch.

Accomplishments: FROG's primary commitment was to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies to address the environmental and human health hazards caused by mining. The first project was cleaning up the soil in the most contaminated areas. Around 3,500 cubic yards of mine waste was removed from the site area to a landfill. It was then capped with impermeable clay and clean gravel, and drainage ditches were installed to reduce infiltration of rain and snowmelt.

FROG also organized an analysis that helped modify the state water quality standards eventually adopted for French Gulch and Blue River. No one expects native Colorado cutthroat trout to prosper in these streams, but the mine pollution has had one unexpected benefit. Because the acid runoff made the water uninhabitable for most fish, it created an artificial barrier that prevented non-native species from migrating upstream above the mine. As a result, Colorado cutthroats continue to thrive in these waters, protected by the pollution below. As the pollution abates, officials plan to construct a physical barrier to prevent the infiltration of invasive species.

The B & B mine property has already born the fruits of FROG's efforts on an 85-acre site in French Gulch at the edge of Breckenridge. Dredge-boat mining left the area piled 30 feet high with cobble, some as big as basketballs. FROG member David O'Neil, a private developer, saw the site as chance to solve a problem for both Breckenridge and the mining company, which was struggling to meet EPA cleanup standards. O'Neil was looking for opportunities to build affordable housing. He bought the 85 acres. Some of the purchase price went to the EPA to fund the environmental assessment and surface remediation.

Wellington Neighborhood, Fall 2002
Photo courtesy of Wellington Neighborhood
The result is Wellington Neighborhood, a compact community of 124 homes with pitched roofs and Victorian details in keeping with the historic style of Western mining towns. Eighty percent of the homes are reserved for people who work in Summit County, and sell for around one-third the cost of the median-priced housing in Breckenridge. A 20-acre area is designated green space in the development that stresses connections within the community, to neighboring Breckenridge, and to the backcountry B & B mine property beyond. The Town of Breckenridge and Colorado Planning Department won an EPA 2002 national Smart Growth Achievement award. Wellington Neighborhood also won a Sunset Magazine Western Home Award.

In 2004, by a four-to-one margin, voters in Breckenridge approved a bond measure to fund purchase of the 1800-acre B & B property for open space. Summit County voters, in turn, agreed to a property tax increase to fund the county's share of the cost. The $9 million purchase, which closed escrow in May 2005, addresses the scope of cleanup actions and who performs them. In addition to this cooperative land acquisition, Summit County and Breckenridge have worked together to restore the Blue River downstream from French Gulch.

Challenges/Constraints: The purchase agreement requires Breckenridge and Summit County to abate the acid mine drainage from the Wellington Oro Mine. Plans call for a semi-passive water treatment system. Water will be collected from a mine seep and treated to neutralize the acidity and remove metals before being discharged into French Creek or into the ground water. The town and county will also implement voluntary cleanup projects on two other mine sites on the B&B property.

Along with cleaning up the acid-mine runoff, the new owners must decide how to manage their 1,800-acre acquisition. It is intended to provide backcountry open space free of the spot-zoning developments cropping up on other former mining lands. Despite all-but-unanimous local interest in protecting the property from development, some fear that over-gentrification could restrict recreational use. Some trails may be closed to public use to protect natural resource values, and a travel management plan will eventually identify appropriate motorized and non-motorized uses during both summer and winter.

Still, the outcome so far has been more inspirational than restrictive. Interest in French Gulch has spilled downstream to the Blue River, spawning a kayak course, developed fishing areas, and a general movement to take back the local river system.

For more information see:

EPA's French Gulch Superfund Program

Wellington Neighborhood

Adrian Brown Consultants, Inc

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