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HCCA sues Forest Service over Water Treatment Plant

Wants to see insurance bond and approved plan of operations

By Alissa Johnson 

High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service on Monday, October 5, challenging the agency for allowing the continued operation of the U.S. Energy-owned water treatment plant near Mt. Emmons without key regulatory measures in place.

HCCA filed the suit in District Court in Denver, citing the lack of an approved Plan of Operations (PoO), a bond to insure the plant’s ongoing operation, and any environmental review of those operations.

The plant, which is located about three miles upstream of Crested Butte, treats acid mine drainage from the Keystone Mine workings on the south side of Mt. Emmons. According to information provided by HCCA, the plant treats about 350 gallons of water per minute and ensures that heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and zinc are not released into Coal Creek in violation of water quality standards.

The cost of operation is from $1.8 million to $2 million each year, and yet no bond exists to cover that cost should U.S. Energy ever stop operating the plant.

“We’ve been working to address the bonding issue for just about a decade now,” explained HCCA’s public lands director Alli Melton.

Most recently, those efforts included meeting with stakeholders like the Town Council of Crested Butte and the Board of County Commissioners, encouraging them to ask the Forest Service to require a bond.

But for HCCA, a few key developments seemed to demand more action. In August, roughly 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste water and tailings spilled into the Animas River near Silverton, Colo. when a remediation project went awry, highlighting the consequences of acid mine drainage.

In addition, U.S. Energy started to make headlines with declining stock prices and a major corporate shakeup. Last week, the Larsen family, which founded and ran U.S. Energy for nearly 50 years, stepped down from top management positions.

“Our headwater community and down-stream communities are vulnerable as the result of the Forest Service’s inaction.  HCCA’s concern over the lack of a bond for the water treatment plant is not a new one–rather, it’s an issue we’ve raised for years with the Forest Service.  As we’ve watched U.S. Energy’s finances continue to decline over the last year, this outstanding concern has only become more pressing,” Melton said.

Melton pointed out that the Forest Service itself has admitted the need for both a PoO and a bond.

In a 2012 decision, the Forest Service wrote: “No bond currently exists for this very extensive operation on National Forest System lands. In accordance with 36 CFR 228.13(a), a reclamation bond is appropriate and is required.”

“We just want this to come to a solution that protects our community, and we don’t think it’s appropriate to have the Forest Service continue to leave our community and our community’s values at risk,” Melton said.

According to Forest Service spokesperson Lee Ann Loupe, the agency is unable to comment on issues in litigation.

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