Office for University Outreach

Meeting of the Minds: Scientists, Artists Develop Solutions for Inactive Mines

Meeting of the Minds: Scientists, Artists Develop Solutions for Inactive Mines

What to do with an abandoned mine? This is a question many intermountain towns face, but answering it can be difficult. Across the state, Colorado has thousands of abandoned or inactive mines, which can leach acids and metals into watersheds and aquifers and present hazards to those who explore the sites. At the same time, many community members regard abandoned mines as markers of their history and heritage. The increasingly complex nature of social and environmental concerns demands new approaches to identifying solutions, which is precisely the uncharted territory that the Hardrock Revision project aimed to conquer. 

The project united an interdisciplinary team of scientists, artists, writers, and community leaders who volunteered their time and devoted one month in residence in Lake City, Colo. to develop creative and conscientious solutions for the inactive, historic Ute Ulay silver mining site in the scenic San Juan Mountains. Hardrock Revision is led by the non-profit Colorado Art Ranch and the Lake City Downtown Improvement and Revitalization Team (DIRT). A University of Colorado Boulder Outreach Award supported CU-Boulder faculty and student involvement in the project. 
 
“In general, abandoned mines can be environmental and public safety hazards that require costly cleanups. It is often unclear who the responsible parties are and where the funds will come from,” said Catherine Carella, Hardrock Revision team member and CU-Boulder environmental engineering graduate student. “The Hardrock Revision project was aimed to provide local stakeholders with an open dialogue and produce thought-provoking solutions for future uses of the Ute Ulay Mine.”
 
The group devised a plan that would maintain Ute Ulay as a functional, educational, and habitable public space. Their plan integrated ideas for recreation, economic development, tourism, community, heritage, safety, water quality, and aesthetics and could serve as a model for other communities. It covers a range of artistic and preservation ideas, such as structure and ground stabilization, art and educational programing, rooftop tarps that protect buildings from degradation while displaying historic imagery, and bioremediation in which plants draw out heavy metals and other toxins from the soil.
 
The team relied on scientific advisors, including Joe Ryan, CU-Boulder professor of civil, environmental, and architectural engineering, and Chris Ray, CU-Boulder ecology and evolutionary biology research associate. Ryan explained water contamination issues associated with hardrock mining, and Ray taught the group about pikas, an alpine indicator species. During Ray’s visit, she found evidence that pika inhabit the Ute Ulay area furthering underscoring the importance of environmental preservation. 
 
For Carella, the project offered a unique opportunity to incorporate her environmental engineering interests as part of a trans-collaborative project. Carella acted as a facilitator during the group's month-long residency this past summer. She interviewed community members, attended scientific lectures with project advisors, documented experiences in film and photo, and collaborated extensively with the team in various meetings.
 
“My interest in environmental engineering stemmed from a long-time aspiration to protect and restore the natural waters that I enjoy,” said the Florida native. “Hardrock Revision was a new type of project for me. The project appealed to me most because of its collaborative approach to problem solving.”
 
Moving forward, the Hardrock Revision team continues to update the group blog about their vision. Colorado Art Ranch has met with the Hinsdale County Commissioners, and representatives from the Department of Reclamation and Mine Safety, Department of Public Health and Environment, and Colorado Brownfields. The organization will be involved in creating a master plan for the site with help from landscape architect, Becky Sobell. Carella and CU-Boulder advisors will remain active participants in the project.
 
“During my next couple of years at CU-Boulder, I see myself pushing our team's vision to the next level of legitimacy,” Carella said. “I want to be a part of the follow through for the site investigation and remediation, continued community collaboration, and general promotion of the project.”
 
According to Grant Pound, founder and executive director of Colorado Art Ranch, this project will be used as a model for similar projects in the future. “There are a lot of opportunities for the arts to help create a vision for human and land issues. Each situation involves different players, situations, and parameters, but the basic model of mixing the arts, sciences, and community can be applied,” Pound said.
 
Read more about the group’s vision for the Ute Ulay on the Hardrock Revision Blog

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