Zephyr Minerals’ Dawson Gold Mine permitting process has been extended by at least a year after they’ve been told by the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety that they need to drill five groundwater monitoring wells and monitor them for five quarters, as well as one compliance well. This pushes out the potential approval of the mining permit to late 2023. Under current regulations, DRMS must respond, by approving or denying the mining permit application, within one year from the date on which DRMS considered the application to be complete, July 15, 2021.
“Clearly, it is impossible timewise to do five quarters of monitoring between now and the 15th of July 2022,” said Will Felderhof, who is the executive chairman for Zephyr Minerals. “That’s why we withdraw the application, do our monitoring and then resubmit the application to address these questions regarding the information they are requesting with the water wells.”
Additionally, the decision to ask for a two-month extension will allow for more time to get more exact locations for the additional water monitoring wells. Once those are approved, he said, Zephyr will withdraw the application in order to move forward with the five quarters of water monitoring.
Our region hosts an abundance of abandoned mine sites and orphaned oil and gas wells.
They contaminate our water and air with acid mine drainage and leaking methane. They are the legacy of decades of resource extraction, and unfortunately, taxpayers often end up with the liability to reclaim the damage.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act passed in November includes billions of dollars for abandoned mine reclamation and plugging orphaned oil and gas wells. But more importantly, rules are needed to head off the creation of future problems.
Most of us are likely familiar with abandoned mines that dot the hillsides above Silverton and elsewhere, but the ones of most concern are those draining water laden with heavy metals. Our region also contains more 30,000 oil and gas well sites, and a surprising number are inactive with rusted equipment bleeding methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Abandoned mines and orphaned wells are derelicts without any responsible owner willing or financially capable of reclamation. These sites are not intentionally created, but creep up on us as owners change over the decades and lose interest or capacity to keep them operating. An owner might hope that metal or oil prices will spike and lead to a resurgence of extraction, but these sites have marginal reserves to begin with, and eventually owners may just walk away, leaving someone else on the hook for cleanup.
One important means to prevent these liabilities from burdening taxpayers is to require reclamation while a financially viable owner still exists. That’s the basis of Colorado’s Mined Land Reclamation Act, which allows mines to “temporarily” cease production for a limited period. If production does not resume, then it is in the interest of the state and taxpayers to make sure reclamation starts while someone responsible is still around.
The uranium mines scattered across the Dolores River basin are a case in point. Most haven’t operated for decades, but over the past 40 years owners kept hoping that uranium prices might reach a level that again spurred production. But at some point, reality needs to set in and owners should start undertaking efforts to reclaim mines. That’s the point of Colorado’s reclamation law.
Orphaned oil and gas wells are similarly vexing. A nearby example is dozens of rusting, derelict, leaking wells west of Farmington in an area called the Hogback. State and federal records list these as active, but the rust and the fact one needs a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle to even reach them is ample evidence the wells haven’t produced in many years. The companies associated with them have long since vanished, with phone numbers disconnected. If today’s price of oil hasn’t spurred any renewed activity, it seems unlikely anything would.
Colorado hopes to prevent additional orphaned wells by increasing bonds posted by oil companies. The bonds ideally should be ample enough to cover the costs of plugging and reclaiming wells in the event the companies disappear, so as to keep taxpayers off the hook.
It seems common sense to head off future problems, and forestall asking for billions in tax dollars like the Infrastructure Act provides, but not all agree. Right now, the mining industry is aggressively opposing rules about temporary cessation at hardrock mines, arguing for loopholes that allow mines to be idled and largely abandoned for decades, just in case someday they might again become profitable.
The plague of abandoned mines and orphaned wells proves the worth of Benjamin Franklin’s adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We can hope state officials to appropriately translate that advice into rules.
Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The amount of snow that’s collected in Colorado’s mountains over the winter is nearly normal for this time of year, according to the Colorado Snow Survey Program. But while statewide snowpack levels are about 91 percent of average, USDA officials say that number is starting to drop as snow in some areas starts to melt early with warmer-than-average spring temperatures…
Federal data has forecasted statewide streamflow to be 86 percent of average for the 2022 season. Despite close-to-average snowfall so far, other factors like dry soil and warmer temperatures are likely to reduce the amount of snowmelt that becomes runoff and enters streams, according to a report from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The report also shows that all of the state’s major river basins are forecasted to have below-normal streamflow this coming summer…
Back-to-back years of drought have taken a toll on water stored in Colorado reservoirs, which currently contain about 76 percent of average storage levels, data show. Only reservoirs in the South Platte river basin have reached above-average levels. Abnormally warm temperatures in late March triggered an early start to the snowmelt season in south-central and southwest Colorado, Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said in a recent climate update. Rapid snowmelt can lead to less reliable water supplies and an increased risk of wildfire in higher elevations, she said…
Soil on the Western Slope isn’t likely to be as dry this spring and summer as it was in 2021, which Bolinger said is good news. That means more water will make it into streams and reservoirs because the soil isn’t as thirsty. Soils are drier in the eastern part of the state, which Bolinger said will likely cause problems for farmers during the growing season. About 83 percent of Colorado is currently in a moderate drought or worse, data from the U.S. Drought Monitor show.
Click the link to read “Colorado Weather: Mountain Snow Completely Misses Denver Causing Soaring Fire Danger” on the CBS Denver website (Ashton Altieri). Here’s an excerpt:
The snow on Thursday and Friday [April 14-15, 2022s] will be minor compared to earlier in the week. Since Tuesday Winter Park has measured 20 inches, Snowmass has had 18 inches, Aspen Mountain has had 16 inches, and Beaver Creek measured 10 inches.
All the snow has helped snowpack to increase across all eight of Colorado’s river basins in recent days. On Monday the statewide average snowpack was 88% compared to normal. As of Thursday morning it was 92% compared to normal. Ideally water officials would perfect it to be 100% but it could obviously be much worse.
Click the link to read “Runoff into McPhee Reservoir below average from poor snowpack” on The Cortez Journal website (Jim Mimiaga). Here’s an excerpt:
Irrigation supply will be better than last year’s historic lows, but probably not by much, officials say
As of April 14, snowpack in the basin was at 70% of the average snow-water equivalent, and the runoff has started into the Dolores River and McPhee. It is too early to tell exactly how much will make it to reservoir, said Ken Curtis, general manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District.
“We think we are better off than last year, we’re not sure yet by how much,” he said. “The low-elevation snow below 9,000 feet is gone.”
A more definitive runoff forecast is expected in the coming weeks. A special meeting will be held May 5 at 7 p.m. at the DWCD office, 60 S. Cactus, St., Cortez, to provide an update on McPhee irrigation supply.
McPhee has 37,300 acre-feet of active supply, and is filling at a rate of 3 inches per day. The reservoir has a capacity of 229,000 acre-feet active supply. Most of the current active supply in McPhee will be used to fill up adjacent Narraguinnep Reservoir, of the Montezuma Valley Irrigation District, which has started delivering water. The Dolores Water Conservancy District has begun delivering water south via the Towaoc Highline Canal to the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch operation. Water delivery in the Dove Creek Canal to northern farms is expected in early May…DWCD’s early predictions are on the conservative side, with a 90% probability of 2.5 inches per acre and a 70% probability of 6 inches per acre, still far below average…
Dust on snow is also a factor because the darker layer increases absorption of heat, melting and evaporation. It also contributed to runoff happening a week early in the Dolores River. There were five dust-on-snow events this winter in the San Juan Mountains, according to the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies. Dust layers are in the upper third of the snowpack, and the latest layer was deposited Monday, before Tuesday’s snowstorm, said Executive Director Jeff Derry…
To aid in the forecast prediction, on Friday a flyover of the Dolores Basin was planned by Airborne Snow Observatories Inc. to measure snowpack depth. The plane uses technology that scans the elevation of the snow cover, then compares it with the bare ground elevation to determine snowpack.