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Orange water was flowing from a century-old gold mine in Utah. Here’s who paid to clean it up.

The drainage evoked Gold King Mine Spill of 2015.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) In December 2020, a bat gate and concrete settling dam were installed at the entrance to the Marvin Tunnel gold mine by the U.S. Forest Service to protect Blanding's water supply. April 26, 2021.

Blanding • In August, along a graded dirt road high in the Abajo Mountains of southeastern Utah, campers and hikers spotted a small stream of bright orange-red water.

It was flowing from a 100-year-old gold mine shaft known as the Marvin Tunnel toward the creek that supplies the city of Blanding, home to 3,500 people, with its municipal water.

Charles Pipkin, a city council member from Goshen, Utah, held the claims to the Marvin Tunnel and the nearby Dream Mine, both of which had been worked by his great grandfather in the early 1900s. But when Pipkin reopened the Marvin Tunnel in 2019 and continued excavating its entrance last summer, he did so without the required permit, bond or reclamation plan, according to the state.

For some passers by, the drainage that was discovered pouring out of the mine evoked the far larger Gold King Mine Spill in 2015, where millions of gallons of similarly colored water burst from a containment pond and flowed into the Animas and San Juan rivers, discoloring them for hours and sparking years of lawsuits.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Looking inside the Marvin Tunnel, a gold mine shaft that extends for 1,000 feet and was reopened last year without a permit. April 26, 2021.

“The public optics of red effluent coming out of a mine tunnel brought back visions of the Gold King acid mine drainage,” said Wes Sherlock, a geologist with the U.S. Forest Service, during a presentation to the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining last week. And the mine shaft’s proximity to a road prompted public safety concerns.

Pipkin installed a plywood door at the mine’s opening last summer in an attempt to partially comply with state requirements, and he told The Salt Lake Tribune that his construction activity had discolored the water.

“Within a day or two after I was done installing that door,” Pipkin said, “there was nobody walking around in there and stirring it up … and it ran clear again.”

In August, employees of the Forest Service, Blanding City, the San Juan County Public Health Department and the state Division of Environmental Quality visited the site and collected samples.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance to the Marvin Tunnel gold mine on April 26, 2021.

The discharge was found to be alkaline and not as prone to carrying heavy metals, which can occur with acidic mine drainage, Sherlock said. Besides its sediment load, it did not present an immediate drinking water quality concern.

Pipkin, who grew up in Monticello and Moab in the 1950s, added that he asked the San Juan County health department to sample the water that has been flowing out of the mine for over a century before he began prospecting. The county told him the water was safe.

“I have family, friends, relatives down in Blanding,” Pipkin said, “so I wouldn’t want to create a problem for their water supply.”

Blanding City did not respond to a request for comment, but Paul Baker, minerals program manager for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said the proximity to Blanding’s water intake sparked quick action on the part of the state and Forest Service, both of which began working to close the mine after its first inspection. The efforts of the state and federal agencies were nominated for an Environmental Excellence Award by the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining last week.

The Marvin Tunnel, which was largely constructed in the 1920s, is situated below the larger Dream Mine, which was intermittently worked from 1893 to 1943, including by John Duckett, Pipkin’s great-grandfather.

Neither mine ever turned a profit, Sherlock said, but in 2019 Pipkin and his children began excavating material from the Marvin Tunnel with a pick and five-gallon buckets. Pipkin also said he cleared the entrance to the Dream Mine with a shovel to begin prospecting inside.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign near the Marvin Tunnel, a gold mine that was opened without a permit last year, indicates the protections in place for Blanding's water supply. April 26, 2021.

Records on file with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining state that Pipkin brought in heavy equipment to clear the partially caved-in entrance to Marvin Tunnel in 2020, an action that requires permitting. Material from the mine was dumped across the road and into a perennial stream, which leads to Johnson Creek.

There are thousands of abandoned mines and inactive mine claims throughout the state of Utah, but Baker said it’s relatively rare that a claim holder begins operations without a permit. Had Pipkin wanted to reopen the mine legally, he would have needed to file a notice of intent to mine with the state.

“It’s a fairly simple application,” Baker said. “It’s like seven pages long, plus a couple of maps.”

Based on that application, the state would have set a bond amount and Pipkin would have needed to put up the bond money in case the mine needed to be reclaimed. Since the Marvin Tunnel was not bonded, the division would have needed approval from a state board to fund the construction of the settling dam and bat gate. The process could take over a year.

“We’ve sent multiple letters, and [had multiple] phone calls with the operator,” Kim Coburn, a staff engineer with the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said at last week’s board meeting. “We hadn’t seen any bonds, any permits. … We wouldn’t have been able to close this mine until this spring at the very earliest here at the division.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Discharge from the Marvin Tunnel gold mine running clear on April 26, 2021.

To expedite the process, the Forest Service stepped in with its own crew to build a settling dam and bat gate at the entrance of the dam in December, permanently closing it unless the proper permits are obtained.

The water running from the mine has remained clear, and Sherlock said the settling dam should function for around 100 years.

“They have mitigated their concerns there,” Pipkin said. “It’s not a problem. If and when I’m ready to go back in, I’ll of course go through the process — the permitting process — to do that.”

Pipkin was fined nearly $3,000 last winter, a figure far lower than the total the closure costs, but he has yet to pay.

“We sent [Pipkin] violations and fines and we haven’t seen a single dime yet,” Coburn said.

But Pipkin said he hasn’t responded to the state because he believes he doesn’t have to pay the fine. “My understanding was that they took care of [the costs] by doing their own closure,” he said.

State records show that if Pipkin fails to pay the fine, it may lead to court action or the debt could be referred to a collections agency.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

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