HomeNews State to U.S. Energy: Clean up Coal Creek
State to U.S. Energy: Clean up Coal Creek
Written by Mark Reaman
Wednesday, 12 January 2011
Town has “significant concerns…”
The first thing to know is that the town of Crested Butte drinking water is fine. Despite a state report showing a major pollution problem emanating from Mt. Emmons, you can drink the water from the tap. But there appears to be a huge pollution situation in the town’s watershed—in particular in Coal Creek. Water tests conducted on property owned by the proposed molybdenum mine on Mt. Emmons showed some huge spikes in poor water quality standards over the last couple of years.
The state is demanding that U.S. Energy Corp, the company that ultimately owns the Mt. Emmons Project molybdenum mine, correct the situation immediately. U.S. Energy CEO Keith Larsen said the company is confident the situation will be rectified. “We can work through the issues. We want to have a face-to-face meeting with the state to talk about the things found in the report,” he said. “But the crux of the issue is, what is the obligation of a landowner to treat those waters that are contaminated with heavy metals that migrate onto your property during a heavy runoff?” The state’s Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has given U.S. Energy until this week to respond to findings outlined by the department. An official “Compliance Advisory letter” was sent to U.S. Energy at the end of December. That letter “is intended to advise US Energy Corp. of possible violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, its implementing regulations and permits, so that it may take appropriate steps to avoid or mitigate formal enforcement action.” The company must begin increased monitoring of the water immediately and “prepare a plan to reduce concentrations to below the standard, review with the Division and implement the plan as approved by the Division.” A progress report is expected by February 1 with regular updates expected throughout the year. According to the letter from the state, sampling conducted by the mine company on its property between the fall of 2008 and the fall of 2010 showed violations in water quality standards. In May 2009, huge violations of the water quality standards in terms of heavy metals including aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead manganese, pH and zinc were found. The samples in some cases were more than 30 times the upper limit of the state’s standards. For example, the upper limit for cadmium is 4.3 micrograms per liter but 140.6 micrograms per liter were found. The upper limit for aluminum is 750 micrograms per liter. But the sample showed 11,497.9 micrograms per liter. Water quality violations were found during other monitoring times as well. The storm water discharge referred to in the report enters Coal Creek below the town’s water intake. Heavy metals in a waterway like Coal Creek can impact the aquatic macro-invertebrates in the creek, the fish in the river, and the overall health of the river and could eventually make the river nonfunctional as an ecosystem. Crested Butte mayor Leah Williams sent a letter to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Division of Reclamation and Mining Safety (DRMS) expressing “significant concerns” and making it clear the town feels its citizens are being put at risk. “Despite this direct and very harmful pollution of Coal Creek, it is our understanding that none of the Mine site water discharge facilities (either the stormwater ditches/pipes or the active water treatment plant) are covered by a financial assurance/bond, and that the current bond for the site does not cover water treatment remediation,” the letter states. The town’s letter continues, “Based on the serious issues documented in the Health Department’s Report, and the fact that the water treatment and related facilities at the Mt. Emmons Mine site are not covered by any financial assurance, the Town of Crested Butte respectfully requests that your agencies take immediate steps to rectify this situation. More specifically, we request that your agencies require the operator to begin immediate remediation/corrective measures to prevent any further pollution of local waters, and to begin immediate proceedings to increase the financial assurance/bond at the site to cover all water treatment and remediation measures/facilities. In the meantime, the operator should not be allowed any further activities at the site, except to remediate and control the water quality contamination.” High Country Citizens’ Alliance executive director Dan Morse was in Denver Wednesday asking DRMS to not issue a prospecting permit requested by the Mt. Emmons project for a new drift, or tunnel, in the mine. DRMS was hearing an appeal of its approval for the prospecting permit. “The activities that DRMS has approved are directly related to the water quality issues,” Morse said. “There is a ditch meant to catch any contaminated water. It’s not working now, so how will allowing more disturbance and work not make it worse? It defies common sense. “We are deeply concerned for the protection of Crested Butte’s drinking watershed and the natural environment of Coal Creek,” Morse continued. “We have had long-standing concerns about the quality of surface water, ground water and water in the historic mine workings on Mt. Emmons. The state’s advisory letter to U.S. Energy clearly confirms our fears and shows that water from this mine site is polluting Coal Creek as it runs through Crested Butte.” Larsen said his company has consistently monitored water quality and never had a problem. “We have had a long history of running the water treatment plant and never have had a major violation,” he said. “The issue here is storm water discharge and water coming off a big spring runoff. We are cognizant of the drinking water and very protective of it. We’ve been monitoring Coal Creek as well and we’ve never found anything substantially wrong with Coal Creek. “I think what happened was that naturally occurring seepage from the mountain after the snowfall runoff picked up some metals,” Larsen continued. “We are the ones monitoring the situation.” “I think what it gets down to is, what is the obligation of any landowner to treat offsite heavy metals that migrate onto your property with heavy runoff. Is that our obligation? Other landowners in the Crested Butte area might be subject to the same responsibility.” Morse said HCCA feels the polluted water is coming off U.S. Energy’s private land and unpatented mining claims. “We understand there is a bulkhead in the 2000 level of the Keystone mine [2,000 feet below the Mt. Emmons peak] that is holding back about 170 vertical feet of water,” said Morse. “The question is, does all that water create artificial seeps and springs that allows polluted water to reach the surface? Are there fractures in the rock causing this water to get to the surface and ultimately pollute Coal Creek? The fact is, Coal Creek is contaminated with heavy metals… and the question remains, are they from this source?” Mt. Emmons Project director of community relations Perry Anderson made it clear that the water coming out of the mine is treated and safe. “U.S. Energy is preparing a response for the division and at this time it is premature to draw any conclusions. But everyone is confident that the water going through the Water Treatment Plant to the town is safe.”