Remedial Action

Thanks to all the people who took the time to come to the public meeting on April the 3rd. Since then there have been further meetings with Hinsdale County Commissioners and DRMS.

I have also written a paper for the ECLAS conference in Warsaw, Poland, in September about the Ute Ulay Project; it’s been a busy week!

It was good to get a feedback regarding what is important to locals up at the Ute Ulay mine site. In general people there want the redevelopment of the site to cover a number of areas.

The site should cover historical, economic, and environmental concerns equally. These areas are intrinsically linked by the physical site, and any actions should consider all three at once (even though it is harder and more complicated!).

It is important for the future maintenance of the historic structures that there is some kind of income from the site (since the tax base in Hinsdale is already stretched). This might come from refurbished buildings being let out on a concessionary basis. The best way to maintain a building is to use it. In addition, this might provide opportunities for local entrepreneurs to widen the (very short and intense) tourist season when they need to make most of their money for the year.

For the potential Ute Ulay businesses to be successful, there will need to be visitors. We already know that there are thousands of visitors to the Alpine Loop who pass straight through the Ute Ulay, but if they can read the historical narrative of the site they’ll be more likely to stop – and more likely to return. As Richard Francaviglia notes in his wonderful book Hard Places, historic preservation is a huge tourist attractor in the USA, but many mining landscapes are not valued as much as beautiful old buildings. So, I propose that the landscape be retained and made useable wherever possible. A light touch is needed.

For all of the historical and economic parts to work, the site needs to be considered safe, and the stability of the tailings ponds needs to be addressed. In most cases tailings ponds are remodelled with the implicit assumption that they should be made to look ‘natural’; this strategy was used at the Ute Ulay’s former tailings ponds a little further up the Alpine Loop. The community (at least the ones who came to the meeting) were in agreement that this is not an appropriate approach for the Ute Ulay.

There are more studies due to take place on the ground conditions at the Ute Ulay in coming months. It will be interesting to see what they bring to light. But for now we know that the lead-rich tailings ponds along the banks of Henson Creek are a potential environmental hazard; because ‘release of these tailings during a major storm event or by failure of an impoundment structure would certainly put these materials into Henson Creek’ (Nash 2002). Remediation will involve stabilisation, and this may mean large-scale disturbance of material on site, though the details are still to be worked out.



Since May 12, 2011, I have been trying to track down a relatively detailed/accurate survey (paper or digital) of the Ute Ulay. I am a resourceful type, but this task has proved beyond my capabilities.

To say it is frustrating, is somewhat of an understatement! But, after many, many weeks of asking politely, researching, cobbling together and ‘making do’, I am approaching something that I am confident will be useful.

A few days ago, I took my latest (6th version) plans and sections up to the site and went back to using hand-brain-eye co-ordination to draw on top of what I had been able to produce through (mostly) desktop research.

The levels on site are very complex, but also important. The narrative of this site is about earth moving. The ground itself is made of hard work. The lumps and bumps, and rocky expanses are as much historical features as any of the buildings, though people tend not to notice. Landscape is the quiet sibling of architecture. But for all that – it has such depths! The information and multiple histories of the landform tell subtle stories, if you take the time to look. Their rich textures, and chemical makeup flow around you – directing your view or supporting your weight.

By contrast, the buildings sit as discrete entities within the landscape. As humans, I think it is natural for us to focus on the object and not on the background. But imagine if that background changed drastically… would not the whole scene be fundamentally different? Proposals for ‘reclamation’ of the site include re-grading some of the oldest parts of the landform, and obliterating them. In mining, the landscape is a systemic entity, and the rock (waste or otherwise) is part of that. Making the site safe for humans, is not incompatible with using the site to tell the story of it’s own past.

My task of recording the landform and conditions currently on site, is my way of paying homage to their importance. I am not opposed to change, but change should be undertaken for positive reasons, and with respect and sensitivity. My own flawed survey will form the basis for my proposals.

The Difference Between Rock and Rock

What’s the difference between the waste rock on the Ute Ulay site, and crumbling rocks on nearby parts of the Rocky Mountains?

Above is waste-rock at the Ute Ulay. Waste rock is a by-product of lode mining. The miners follow a vein through the inside of the mountain, searching for a rich ore that can then be processed and sold. After the rock has been drilled, and blasted with dynamite, the resulting material is mucked out (shovelled up and taken away). Next, the ore is sorted; the workers look for particular colours and types of rock that they know are mineral-rich. Those are set aside to be crushed, etc. and sold. The rest is waste rock.

Above are some naturally crumbly bits of the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are geologically young, which means they are steep, and lots of bits of crumbly rock are still falling off them. It struck me that these crumbly rocks had come from the same mountains as the waste rock, were about the same size as the waste rock, and are heading into the rivers in the same manner that the waste rock does.

So what is the difference? The reason it matters, is that according to current practice here, waste rock requires remediation, whereas naturally crumbly mountain does not. If waste rock is part of the same mountain, and is the same shape and size as other crumbly bits of mountain rock, why are we not either:

a/ just ignoring it.

b/ remediating the entire mountain?

The reasons are twofold. Firstly, the waste rock has been taken from specifically mineral rich areas, and therefore has a higher mineral (potential pollutant) content. Secondly, the crumbly mountain rock has been subject to weathering forces which gradually erode it. So the waste rock is leaching out more minerals, at a faster rate than the naturally crumbling rock. That creates the potential for risks to human health, amongst other things.

There is lots of waste rock up at the Ute Ulay. Part of the process of developing the Ute Ulay site will be to keep people’s contact with the metals present there (lead mostly) to a minimum. After a meeting this morning with representatives from CDPHEDRMS, and Colorado Brownfields Foundation, I have a few things to ruminate on regarding the future shape of the Ute Ulay.The remediation strategies proposed for the Ute Ulay would drastically alter some of the historically important landform.

There is no doubt that the landscape will change significantly. But this is just another stage in the history of this place. It is also an opportunity.

As a landscape architect I am regularly (partly) responsible for changing places. I remember the first site visit I ever went on. It was to a run-down victorian seaside resort called Rhyl in north Wales, and I felt the weight of people’s memories weighing down on me. Who was I to propose any changes?! But it’s part of the job to develop the confidence to alter places – you just hope that you can make it better for most people.

A year after the park in Rhyl was completed, I went back to check on the planting and overheard people telling each other how much they liked the place. It meant more than any award ever could.