Discovery Channel's ‘Gold Rush’ is leaving Park County, but residents continue to fight for more mining oversight
Posted: February 17, 2018
by Jack Queen, Summit Daily
It's been nearly two years since the reality-TV show "Gold Rush" roared into Park County, descending on an old dredge near Fairplay with a small army of trucks and excavators to mine for television gold — and a bit of the real stuff, too.
The show stirred up some trouble along the way, disturbing the peace and quiet of some neighbors and even leading to some gunplay with a fed-up local. It also had its defenders, including Fairplay's mayor, who said the miners' relationship with the town was "five-star."
Now, the crews are packing up and leaving Park County for good. But Save South Park, the opposition movement that sprang up against them, isn't going anywhere, galvanized by their struggle against the show to push for more oversight of mining.
"The legacy of mining and what's happened in the past is pretty horrific," said Trevor Messa, one of the group's co-chairs. "We just want to see responsible mining our region. Mining can take place, but it needs to take place with people's approval."
Save South Park's members are still in a legal battle against the county over a re-zoning decision favorable to "Gold Rush," which they fear could mean the mining continues even after the TV crews are gone.
The controversy also convinced some residents that there isn't enough local control over mining in Park County, which they say risks spoiling their picturesque swath of the High Country and contaminating its waterways with old mining chemicals currently entombed in rocks.
Last week, the group published a 50-page report by geologist John S. Stuckless sounding the alarm over possible mercury contamination in the Fairplay area and urging state regulators to investigate.
"Things like this can often catalyze people to come together and combine their efforts to have a positive impact on their communities," said Danny Teodoru, an attorney representing the group in Park County District Court. "I think that's what you're seeing here, and that's very encouraging."
On Saturday, Save South Park held a fundraising event at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge, featuring four bands and a series of speakers who shared their concerns about the mining that has sprung up in Park County since "Gold Rush" came on the scene. With the money raised, the group hopes to encourage officials to adopt new standards for responsible mining.
"We've seen a large jump in mining operations in this area and there just doesn't seem to be any oversight of it," Messa said. "We watched something go from a small gravel operation to a giant industrial operation in the past year and a half with what 'Gold Rush' was doing."
The site of the "Gold Rush" operation, adjacent to residential areas just off Highway 9 and a short drive from Fairplay, had for years been the site of a small-scale gravel operation. That changed when the mining show arrived with a complement of industrial-scale equipment.
The show's popularity drew plenty of fortune seekers and amateur gold miners to Park County, some less scrupulous than others. In a letter to the county commissioners last year, a U.S. Forest Service official warned that the number of squatters on National Forest land had "increased dramatically" since the show's arrival.
But the "Gold Rush" model, using tons of heavy equipment to pick over old dredge mines, worries Save South Park. Group members fear that stirring up legacy mine operations could unearth toxic chemicals used in bygone eras.
"In the whole process of looking into mining in this area, and how it's affecting this area, we came across the fact that some of these old tailings were contaminated with mercury," Messa said, citing historical documents and conversations with mining historians.
Trapped in dredge piles in its solid form, the mercury is harmless. But when disturbed, it can enter waterways and undergo a chemical process called methylation. The resulting methylmercury is a potent neurotoxin that bioaccumulates in ecosystems.
Miners used mercury to recover gold from the 1800s through the 1960s, losing much of it to the environment as it flowed along water sluices. In recent years, the U.S. Geological Survey has found that mercury contamination is widespread across the American West, in part because of historical mining operations.
In the report, which draws on several USGS studies and a wealth of historical documents, Save South Park argues that Park County's many dredge piles could be contaminated with mercury, posing grave risks to fish and wildlife if they are disturbed.
"We cannot risk sacrificing our water, our future and our children's health to the environmentally damaging operations of some miners and the hazardous fallout of their ventures," the report's introduction reads.
The group sent the report to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety early last week, asking the agencies to test for methylmercury in South Park. (Spokesmen for the agencies could not confirm Friday whether or not they had received the report, but Messa said he was told it was being reviewed.)
"What we're concerned about is that nobody is testing to see if any of this stuff is contaminated with mercury," Messa said. "We can show you the data that say it likely is, but until the state actually decides to test the sites that these guys are operating on, we don't know."