Gunnison River basin: CPDHE orders U.S. Energy Corp. to clean up water from the Mt. Emmons mine

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From email from the High Country Citizens’ Alliance (Dan Morse, High Country Citizens’ Alliance/Jeff Parsons, Western Mining Action Project):

The State of Colorado has found US Energy Corp’s Mount Emmons mine site outside of Crested Butte exceeding state water quality standards for multiple heavy metal pollutants and is requiring the company to remedy the water quality issues or face further violation orders and penalties. In a letter sent to US Energy Corp CEO Keith Larsen on December 27, 2010 the Colorado Water Quality Control Division details possible violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act for discharges of Aluminum, Cadmium, Copper, Iron, Lead, Manganese, Zinc and low pH levels. The State’s letter requires a response from US Energy Corp by January 12, 2011 and requires a plan to be developed and implemented that would bring the discharges into compliance. The CDPHE letter is available here.

The revelations of contamination come just as the State of Colorado mining division is simultaneously in the process of reviewing and approving new mine development activity at the same Mt. Emmons site. The mine proponents are seeking permission to construct a new mine tunnel, produce waste rock and conduct drilling in the mine. The proposed operations would involve the handling of large volumes of water and ground disturbance in the Crested Butte watershed. Dan Morse, Executive Director of the Crested Butte environmental group High Country Citizens’ Alliance commented, “The State’s review process for a new mining tunnel at this site has so far avoided addressing these water quality risks including the need for substantial financial guarantees if new work is approved.”

The Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board will hear an appeal of the proposed mining activities on Wednesday January 12 at 9am at 1313 Sherman Street, Room 318, in Denver.

Morse added “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 US Energy clearly confirms our fears and shows that water from this mine site is polluting Coal Creek as it runs through Crested Butte. We are deeply concerned for the protection of Crested Butte’s drinking watershed and the natural environment of Coal Creek.”

The Mt. Emmons Project is a proposed molybdenum mine located three miles west of Crested Butte on the flanks of 12,000 foot Mt. Emmons. The mine property is owned by US Energy Corp of Riverton, Wyoming and operated in conjunction with Denver based partner Thompson Creek Metals Company. The mine proposal is at the site of historic mining activity that resulted in severe mining pollution that is now treated in a water treatment plant. The state’s recent advisory letter addresses surface water runoff not captured in the treatment plant, instead flowing directly to Coal Creek. Coal Creek is the sole source of drinking water for the Town of Crested Butte.

Water quality monitoring by another local group, the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition, has shown elevated pollutant levels in the creek for the last five years, but the sources of the metals have remained unclear. Efforts to improve water quality in Coal Creek date back as far as the late 1970’s when AMAX, Inc. installed an industrial water treatment plant at the mine site at the requests of the Town of Crested Butte, State of Colorado, US Forest Service, and area residents. Although that plant improved water quality, Coal Creek continues to be listed as an impaired water body by state regulators.

Jeff Parsons, Senior Attorney with Western Mining Action Project stated, “These pollution problems are serious and deserve immediate attention. U.S. Energy should not be allowed to expand its mining activities and create more impacts until it can clean up the mess that’s already there.”

More Gunnison River basin coverage here.

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