Orange sediment laced with heavy metals is visible in the path of water coming out of the Natalie/Occidental Mine in southwestern Colorado. This mine is one of dozens on a proposed Superfund listing pending with the EPA. Several mines in the area have been leaching the tainted water for years — well before the Gold King Mine spill.
Grace Hood/Colorado Public Radio
One year ago — on Aug. 5, 2015 — an EPA crew at the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of orange water filled with mercury and arsenic.
The toxic spill flowed into the Animas River, eventually running into New Mexico’s San Juan River and into Lake Powell. So far, disaster response and water quality monitoring have cost the EPA about $29 million — and the problem isn’t over yet.
Water laced with heavy metals continues to gush out of the mine, says Joyel Dhieux of the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s why the EPA built a water treatment plant here last fall, at the cost of $1.5 million.
Contaminated wastewater is seen at the entrance to the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, Colo., in this picture released by the Environmental Protection Agency. The photo was taken Wednesday; the plume of contaminated water has continued to work its way downstream.
“Five hundred gallons a minute is what we’re currently seeing coming from the Gold King Mine,” Dhieux says. “It’s a bit of an increase, as you might expect with all the spring melt in the area.”
Five hundred gallons a minute is a lot. But Dhieux says this is only one of several abandoned mines in the area.
Some have been discharging the same kind of water for decades. And the water from those mines is not running through a treatment plant.
Joyel Dhieux, EPA on-scene coordinator, looks at an old water treatment plant that stopped operating near the base of the Gold King Mine in the early 2000s. The EPA built its own temporary plant in October 2015 after the Gold King Mine spill.
Grace Hood/Colorado Public Radio
In fact, this problem is at the heart of why the EPA was at the Gold King Mine last summer. And it’s what prompted the local government here to apply for a Superfund listing this spring.
“There was a lot of sleepless nights,” says Willy Tookey, administrator for San Juan County.
For more than a decade, the government here shied away from Superfund status. The two biggest concerns? It would cause a drop in property values and a drop in tourism.
But Tookey says intense negotiations with the EPA over this past year led to new confidence and assurances.
Please attend a meeting about creating a Ouray County community trust on May 4 at Ridgway Community Center
email from Tim Lane to Mike Friedman and Rōbert this morning, 2/25/16.. Hola …Watched Tim’s Lane today (in Chile)… laughed a lot …don’t think I ever skied that shot …all the best, Tim
email response from Mike Friedman… There’s a line in the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.
email from Rōbert… So it goes… “I know it’s true, even if it didn’t happen.” Mark Twain
Mr. Lane was assisted in his weekly recycling efforts by Fred, Silverton’s ‘Dump Monk’
This was the Saint Germain Foundation’s lodge and religious retreat, a former ski lodge, before it burned in January 1952. The group’s religious beliefs were upheld in a major U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1944, two years after the organization had bought the lodge.
ANDREW GULLIFORD/Special to the Herald
The lodge burned in January 1952, and that fall members of the “I AM” religious group built a garage on the site. The garage still stands immediately adjacent to U.S. Highway 550. Leigh Ann Hunt, forest archaeologist for the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest, says, “The Saint Germain group came planning to do big things and then it never materialized. The lake and garage are now landmarks in Ironton and they will be managed to preserve them.”
ANDREW GULLIFORD/Special to the Herald
A water tank and wooden platform still stand from members of the “I AM” religious group whose adherents moved to Ouray in 1942 and brought new perspectives to the old mining town. After their main lodge burned, members continued to camp on the site.
ANDREW GULLIFORD/Special to the Herald
Few structures remain on the 800-acre site, but one extant building is this cellar or storage area. It includes traces of yellow and purple paint on the interior.
ANDREW GULLIFORD/Special to the Herald
The concrete foundation of the original 1940s lodge can still be seen at the north edge of Ironton Park. Built as a ski lodge, the building became a retreat for the Saint Germain Foundation and “I AM” religious teachings.
Driving across Colorado and the West, I see historic buildings or structures that compel me to get out of my truck and take a walk. For years, I’ve driven between Silverton and Ouray and noticed the large stone garage just east of Crystal Lake in Ironton Park. I’ve always wondered what it was, but in my most vivid imagination I could never have created the story I’m about to tell.
No fiction. Just fact. Including: a ski area, a religion, loudspeakers sounding heavenly music, a couple’s spiritual beliefs tested all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a tragic fire, a yellow Cadillac, and the colors of the rainbow.
The story begins simply enough. A couple of friends decided to build a ski area.
Ouray businessman Joseph Condotti and Ralph Kullerstrand, president of Citizen’s State Bank, acquired patented mining claims on the north end of Ironton Park, and using lumber and bricks recycled from the Saratoga Smelter, built a two-story lodge with a full basement and attic. Ouray historian Don Paulson writes, “They built a ski lift with seven towers, the remnants of which can still be found, and cleared a run of approximately 1,800 feet.”
Across U.S. Highway 550, the partners created today’s Crystal Lake and stocked it with trout, which Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr ate while he attended the lodge’s opening ceremonies in 1940. But the lodge never succeeded. The business partnership failed.
Paulson writes, “Some believe that avalanche hazard was the cause of the disagreement. The Guadalupe slide runs just north of the lodge building and would have threatened the ski run.”
As the ski area sat vacant, a burgeoning religious movement, borne out of the desperation of the Great Depression, lost one of its founders. The religion’s practitioners sought solace in the San Juan Mountains. They bought the lodge and ski area.
In many cultures around the world, mountains are seen as sacred places. Ouray bills itself as “the Switzerland of America,” so maybe that’s why in the 1940s the Saint Germain Foundation bought the unused ski lodge for a religious retreat. A decade earlier in 1930, Guy W. Ballard, hiking on Mount Shasta in northern California, had encountered the Ascended Master Saint Germain. That experience was the origin of the “I AM” religious teachings.
According to the Saint Germain Foundation, Jesus Christ was an Ascended Master, and Joan of Arc and Benjamin Franklin were earlier embodiments of Mrs. Guy Ballard. In the 1930s, Saint Germain inspired Guy Ballard to write books titled Unveiled Mysteries and The Magic Presence. The books communicate theosophy, and volume No. 3 is The ‘I AM’ Discourses, which are sacred scriptures and part of the Ascended Master Teachings religion. In 1939, Guy Ballard became an Ascended Master.
The “I AM” movement grew spectacularly during the dark days of the Depression. In 1942, the federal government indicted his wife, Edna Ballard, their son Donald Ballard and other affiliates on 12 counts including mail fraud. They were convicted of organizing a moneymaking scheme, and the same year the foundation bought the lodge and members moved to Ouray seeking privacy. The Ballard family appealed the convictions, and two years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in one of the most important decisions about religious freedom in the 20th century.
The Ballards won. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned their conviction in United States v. Ballard 322 U.S. 78 (1944). In a victory for the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, the high court ruled that the tenets of one’s religious faith could not be legally challenged.
Now comes her yellow Cadillac, Mrs. Edna Ballard, and members of the “I AM” religion. They preferred the colors of the rainbow, including purple and yellow, and her inner staff wore formal clothes. One story is that a local Ouray teacher involved in the “I AM” religious group would not tolerate red and black crayons in her schoolroom. The lodge held a sanctuary on the main floor for regular services. Sounds of violins, carillon bells – at the time the highest in the world – and harp music wafted down the canyon. Nearby were plans for a music healing temple.
Lifelong member Bud Thayer knew Mrs. Ballard and he told me, “She was guided by Saint Germain in what she did in purchasing the property. We were very near a concentration of spiritual energy in that whole area for a number of miles around. We regard that property as very sacred.”
Followers of the religious group produced radio broadcasts “that went all over the world” through wire connections from the property. Normally five to 10 people lived on site, but when Mrs. Ballard arrived there could be as many as 25 assistants.
“She came three to four times a year. She absolutely loved it. She was at her happiest at the lodge in Ouray,” Thayer says.
On the site, a root cellar still has traces of purple and yellow paint. A careful hiker can find little patios under pine trees, short hand-stacked stone walls, and other rock masonry architectural features.
To this day the Chicago-based Saint Germain Foundation exists worldwide with over 300 “I AM” sanctuaries and centers, including one in Santa Fe. But not in Ouray.
After buying the ski area in 1942, the religious group purchased mining claims until they owned an 800-acre site.
According to Paulson, “In 1947 they announced plans to open a large summer camp able to house over 500 people but that never materialized. Unfortunately, in January of 1952, the lodge caretaker accidentally set the building on fire using a blowtorch” while melting snow and icicles on the roof. Because of prevailing canyon winds the old mining timbers burned instantly. Terraces show where summer cabins would have been built.
Today, only the concrete foundation of the lodge remains and I like to hike around it. I think about the ski area and summer camp that could have been but never was. The stone garage built in the fall of 1952 is locked. Plans included rebuilding the lodge one or two stories atop the garage, but instead it became a truck and storage area.
The foundation held on to the property for a few more decades and members of the organization camped on site. On Feb. 10, 1971, . Edna Ballard died in Chicago and took her ascension as the Ascended Lady Master Lotus.
Assisted by federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Red Mountain Project and the Trust for Public Land purchased the 800 acres and transferred it back to the U.S. Forest Service. What was private is now public land.
Leigh Ann Hunt, forest archaeologist for the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest, has written a cultural resource inventory of the site. A stout metal and wood picnic table remains, and I love the stone walls and terraces that look like elves built them.
I agree with the Saint Germain Foundation. Mountains are sacred places. The foundation established more permanent quarters at Mount Shasta, and their former Colorado religious retreat is once again public domain. For me, the silvery San Juans meet my spiritual needs, and though I like rainbow colors, I prefer blue – sky blue – the color you see at 12,000 feet.
Seems those 5 skiers that escaped la muerte on Feb. 13th were living right…
The 2016 Ridgway School Learn To Ice Climb program capitalized on the Ouray Ice Park, a unique community resource to introduce Ridgway 9th grade students to the spectacular sport of ice climbing. Over three Wednesdays in January and February, the students learned how to ice climb under the professional guidance of Ouray County’s two local guide services, Peak Mountain Guides and San Juan Mountain Guides. The guide services kindly provided their services at cost in order to support the program. Funding was provided by the George Gardner Scholarship Fund and the Mount Sneffels Education Foundation.
With fantastic ice conditions, great weather, and excited students, the program was a huge success. Everyone learned how to swing the ice tools, kick the crampons, hold the rope for a friend, and climb the ice! Most importantly, as they learn skills for ice climbing, they also learned about teamwork, trust, and overcoming challenges. The challenge and excitement of ice climbing creates a potent environment for personal growth. After ice climbing each morning, the group spent the afternoon at the Ouray Hot Springs where they debriefed the experience and hopefully learned some of the deeper life lessons that could be gleaned from the experience.
We at the GGSF are very happy to support this valuable experiential learning opportunity for Ridgway 9th graders.
Interpreting weather with Maria, pronostico de campo, Rio Blanco Chile
Avy control work above Hotel Portillo
The Brit & Reggie
The Battleship in motion.
The Eagle after hell-bombing.
Cement Fill running to Hwy. 550 after a 30lb shot placement high in the starting zone.
Dennis McCoy and Jerry Roberts arming the explosives for heli-bombing
East Riverside running over the snowshed.
Profesor Tim Lane, Poet in Residence-Bar National – Santiago Chile, Avalanche forecaster/consultant for the Chilean mining industry, CDOT/CAIC intern forecaster (at 62) & legendary San Juan ski pioneer….
Ski cultures are territorial, especially the old ones. The locals band up like gorillas claiming large swaths of alpine territory. The troops get protective when others invade. Guarding the stash can become a way of life. The local chiefs are elusive and operate in the shadows. These full-timers are the real silverbacks. The local tribe knows more than god about the terrain and roams in the less obvious. Their timing always seems perfect as you gaze upon their tracks from a distant ridge and wonder. They lurk in the areas that we all want. They arrive there while we are drinking coffee. They have spent a lifetime looking for these places and have discovered them. The lines are not documented but recorded in the minds and verbal histories of the privileged. This is their land, their terrain, and you are a visitor. You might see their tracks, but sightings are rare. Tracking them can be dangerous prospect. They might feel hunted and reactions are unpredictable. You should stick to what you can ski from the road.
Lisa Issenberg – Artist, “Former” Ophircan and CDOT groupie.
This tribal phenomenon is rich in the Southwestern Colorado San Juan Mountains. This area is home to one of the oldest ski cultures in the country and is also one of the least developed. For example, there is no formal written documentation or publication of first descents and features are often unnamed; most significant information has transcended the generations through verbal history. At 13,000ft plus, alpine ridge crests develop distinctly segregated circles that separate the populations. This cultural division has always reminded me of the evolutionary history of minority groups in Southwestern China. Large groups of people separated by terrain that after thousands of years have distinctly diverged languages and traditions. Silverton, Ophir, Ouray, Ridway, Durango, Telluride all have separate castes of usual suspects operating in their respective terrain. They even have different names for the same futures seen from opposite sides. The explanation for this is simple. The terrain is constructed in such a way that discourages travel. One could ski tour from Silverton to Telluride faster than one can drive there. The biodiversity is limited. So is information sharing.
Asking about sking around the verbal history of the area is vague. I have picked up scraps of information in coffee shops, taverns, and road cuts. My casual research tells me the early ski explorers in this avalanche stricken terrain were some of the nations first avalanche forecasters hired by the state of Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and National Forest Service. Their job was to keep Highway 550 open for commerce. This effort was not in vain since during the winter of 2006 – 2007, CDOT triggered 464 avalanches with explosives for mitigation purposes. 159 of the controlled slides impacted Colorado highways. Veteran CDOT forecaster Jerry Roberts is a local living legend and was part of the first the group responsible for most of the original exploration and naming of the back country zones in the Silverton area in the 70’s & 80’s through today.
Due to the correlation with avalanche mitigation several of the ski runs here were named after slide paths that hit the highway. The only ski beta sold for years was the Colorado Department of Transportation slide path map. This is the most intact record of the San Juan ski history.
The passes are still today mitigated by CDOT with artillery from a vintage Korean War howitzer. One of the culprit paths is named “The Battleship” in its honor. Outside of these documented paths the consistency of names drift. Which name you use will indicate just how long you have been here. Roberts’s crew skied most of the drainages for better understanding of the continental snow pack. Roberts stated ”We were not special skiers in any way, we were just the only ones exploring.”
The snow pack is technical. More, it is intriguing. To complicate matters there are six to seven micro climates in the San Juans that manipulate the weather. This is dependant on how the storm tracks into the range and how the mountains alter the air masses relative to the complex terrain. Telluride will get 15” and Silverton will accumulate 2” yet the towns are 12 miles apart as the crows fly. Truthfully, the opposite trend is typically the case, but Silverton wants Telluride to believe just what it needs to. The local wind effect here makes it difficult to find the stashes at first. The wind here is the most powerful factor. Large wind events will strip windward faces to the ground. The snowpack will be transported in its entirety to the leeward aspect. This all making perfect avalanche country.
Notorious San Juan Desperado
Contemporary bands of elusive locals from Silverton are the contributors to recent King Lines. Not naming names to protect the innocent, they can be found all living on one of the most unassuming back alleys on the other side of the tracks in the town of Silverton. They are a group of unsung heroes without team name or sponsor. They are tackling the never skied bold lines San Juans 13K peaks and taking the secret home with them. A few of them are responsible for a descent of Hunter in the Alaska Range. Mount Hunter is a entry test piece of American mountaineering to climb let alone ski. They sneak into the deep corners of the San Juans, redefine the standard, and slip back into town to saddle up to the Miners Tavern. That’s the way its been done here for decades and that’s the way the trend seems to remain. The most common trend in the terrain accessed from the Highway 550 these days is the presence of more people. The rapid pulses of public interest in back country skiing due to the advances in gear, media, and its availability are making places like the San Juans more accessible.
Helitrax, San Juan Ski Co, Adventure Guides are all services bringing the public into the snow. Andrew Klotz is the author of new guidebook “Cold Smoke” writes about San Juan backcountry and showcases 25 classic tours of the area. This book has had little effect on the true secrets of the area covering only few of roadside classics. Recently the town of Silverton has transformed from a mining boom town and has seen a resurgence as a ski advocates epicenter. The Elementary School even has PE classes on skis for local kids. The sleepy town hosts collections of boutique manufactures like Venture Snowboards and Skis, Mountainboy Sleds, Montanya rum distillery, and the Silverton Brewing Co. The town’s exports have become cold powder, skis, split boards, local brews, and kicksleds
All of these factors are encouraging new activity to what is easily seen from the road and the ski are, bringing a new resident culture to the range with it. Yet, the core tribes of the range are still skiing the lines that have never seen second descents by outsiders. The silverbacks’ wish to keep it that way. Approach at your own risk.
Written story by OR Brand Ambassador By Mark Allen, November 19, 2012.
There was tension in the voices heard over the crackle of the radio – between forecasters and the highway’s regional CDOT teams. Then, Jerry’s succinct words: “We’re in full conditions here, boys and girls,” the first hint that we might be witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime storm. But of course, at the time, none of us really knew. It was 11:00 pm, January 8, 2005, and it would be an understatement to say it was a stormy night. Forecaster Mark Rikkers was in one truck racing south towards Molas Pass, while lead forecaster Jerry Roberts and his visiting side-kick Tim Lane were headed the opposite direction up Red Mountain, checking on the rapidly deteriorating road conditions and increasing avalanche hazard threatening Highway 550, from the Uncompaghre Gorge above Ouray all the way to Coal Bank Pass – the north/south life-line of southwestern Colorado.
That night, after an already long day of shooting, I was allowed to stay behind and supposedly catch up on much-needed sleep. A night that was sleepless nonetheless, especially since around here we make a habit of snuggling with our Motorolas; no avalanche forecaster worth their Pisco Sours would be sleeping when it’s dumping nearly 3″ per hour on a severely burdened continental snowpack. So there I lay, wide awake, eavesdropping.
Using radio call names, Jerry Roberts is anxiously trying to reach Mark Rikkers: “3 Mary 5-1, this is 3 Mary 5-0; what’s your 20? Mark Rikkers: “Hey Jer, it’s 3 Mary 5-1, I finally made it to Molas Pass – really bad visibility; what’s happening your direction?“ Jerry: “Mark, I’m with a crazy woman stuck in a snowbank near the Muleshoe turn (below a particularly nasty avalanche path) – will need help getting her out so we can shut this highway down. Can’t reach the Red Mountain plow driver – can you try radioing from your location and send him our way?” Mark: “10-4, I’ll give it a try.”
So, trolling for something to do, I ventured an earnest call to Jerry (knowing it was probably a mistake). “Uhh, 3 Mary 5-0, this is 3 Mary 5-2; is there anything I can do from here?” Pause. Jerry, with the whole world listening and a storm puking 3″ an hour, replied, “Thanks 5-2, uhh yea…when we get this lady out we’ll be escorting her back to Silverton for the night, but she might not be able to find a place to stay…doesn’t speak very good English, think she’s Romanian…you think she could camp on your sofa for the night?” I pause, suspicious. “Uhh, yea, sure, I guess so.” Jerry: “Great! And one other thing…I think she’s from the circus…and I think she has a monkey with her.”
Long pause. “Did you say MONKEY?” Jerry: “Ya, I think it’s a MONKEY. Will your dog be okay with that?”
The San Juan Avalanche Project by Don Bachman-Silverton Mountain Journal–February 2001—Reposted because it’s such an important story in San Juan Mountain history–J.R.
In early May of 1971, I was detailed to Silverton by the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR),University of Colorado with a purchase order and instructions to locate a house of suitable size to base an office and living quarters for an avalanche research project.
That night I stopped at the Grand Imperial to listen in on a busy town of 850 people supported by the employment of two large mines, the Sunnyside and Idarado. I wasn’t long on the bar stool before two fellows got up from a table and sandwiched me, right and left with the admonition from the big one on the right of “We don’t allow no #$%&*! hippies in here”. Well, I was fresh from the hippie-cowboy wars of Gunnison County, so not too concerned. My hair and beard weren’t really that long and I was a bit older and sober, and after all was still running a bar of my own back in Crested Butte and felt at the time, those attributes along with carefully honed negotiation skills and perhaps friendly allies could save the day. But, the bartender didn’t look too supportive of customer immunity, and for that matter did the rest of the crowded place.
Hmm, this wasn’t looking good, so I stuck out a hand and introduced myself to Clayton Hadden and Marvin Blackmore. That worked for a minute. Then I said I was in town to run the logistics for an avalanche project. Thank goodness, the other guy at the table they’d just left hopped up and said to leave me alone: he’s heard about this deal and I was probably ok.
That was the first of many times Tuffy Foster, Colorado Highway Maintenance Foreman for Red Mountain and Molas Passes, was to contribute to the well being of the San Juan Avalanche Project. Then Marvin bought me the first of many beers we shared over the years.
This video paints a picture of passionate water users and importance of a healthy Uncompahgre River. The Uncompahgre runs through western Colorado starting in the San Juan mountains through the towns of Ouray, Ridgway, Montrose and Delta, Colorado.