Starting with letters
by Mark Reaman
The town of Crested Butte along with Gunnison County will send letters to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, Water Quality Control Division and the U.S. Forest Service asking them to demand U.S. Energy provide a financial guarantee to ensure that the water treatment plant on Mt. Emmons will continue to operate if something happens to the company.
U.S. Energy, the mining company that owns the molybdenum mineral rights beneath Mt. Emmons, has seen a recent plummeting of its stock price. Some analysts are concerned about the financial health of the company. This has the town, High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) and the Red Lady Coalition (RLC) all worried about what would happen to the plant if U.S. Energy defaulted and went bankrupt or was simply not able to fund the $1.8 million it takes every year to operate the water treatment plant.
At a Town Council work session and meeting on Monday, July 20 town attorney John Belkin provided the council with a history of recent actions about the matter. He said an adiministrative judge ruled that the state, which issues the permit for the plant, has the authority to require surety that the plant would operate if the company walked away for some reason. The town in the past had suggested a $2 million bond would be needed. At the time of that ruling however, the court indicated there seemed no reason to require such a financial bond.
Things have changed significantly in the eyes of the town, the county, HCCA and the RLC, so they want to make the state aware of the potential danger. Belkin is recommending a similar letter be sent to the Forest Service since the plant sits on USFS property.
The council also wanted a clear answer on what entity would be responsible for running the plant if U.S. Energy did indeed walk away. Belkin said that wasn’t clear but anticipated it would be up to the state to take control since the state is the permitting agency.
“The obligation of who would step in should be made clear,” said councilman Skip Berkshire. “But we need to be careful not to present ourselves as willing to step in and fix it. Everyone else would back away and we can’t afford it at all.”
“The financial information on the company doesn’t indicate that the abandonment of the plant is probable,” cautioned mayor Aaron Huckstep. “But circumstances are changing.”
“We should know who to call if it happens,” said councilman Jim Schmidt.
“Even by just asking the question, it might put it in the mind of the state that a bond might be a good idea,” said Berkshire.
Huckstep said following up the letter with face-to-face meetings with state and federal officials might be prudent.
“I’d suggest we start with the letters and see how it goes,” said Berkshire. “We don’t want to send the wrong message via engagement and give the impression we’d step in. It seems that maybe HCCA or the RLC could participate as well—entities outside the government.”
“I see if the government follows up after a letter that the message is, the community is expressing great concern,” said councilman Roland Mason.
Belkin said it would be proper to start to communicate concerns with the state and federal staff people and escalate to higher officials if the pressure is needed.
“Another point to mention in the letters is the age of the technology in the plant,” suggested Berkshire. “It won’t last forever and probably needs an upgrade.”
Councilman Glenn Michel suggested the town of Mt. Crested Butte should be approached to see if it would be willing to sign the letters as well. The staff said they would talk to town manager Joe Fitzpatrick and ask for participation but did not want to slow down the process of getting the letters out.
HCCA public lands director Alli Melton was at the meeting and agreed with the approach being taken by the council to address the shifting situation.