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Election throws possible glitch into speedy Red Lady mine action

Looking for best way to move forward with Congress

By Mark Reaman

Last week’s national election results could have produced a hiccup in the effort and timing to obtain a congressional mineral withdrawal on Mt. Emmons, but there is still optimism that perhaps the action can be taken before the end of the year.

A bill has been crafted and U.S. senator Michael Bennet’s office is ready to move it forward in Washington. Crested Butte town attorney John Belkin told the town council on Monday that the election results in the U.S. senate could make it more of a challenge to get something through Congress in its last days of the session.

“Senator Bennet has been diligent in trying to look at ways to move this through but right now he is not sure of how to do it yet,” Belkin told the council at a November 14 meeting.

The Bennet bill has the support of the town, county, state agencies and Mt. Emmons mine owner Freeport McMoRan. It would withdraw all of the previous unpatented mining claims controlled by U.S. Energy on the mountain. Without those thousands of acres of claims, a mine could never realistically be developed on Mt. Emmons, also known as Red Lady, because there would be no place to construct infrastructure or place tailings.

Belkin said conversations have not yet taken place with Colorado’s other senator, Republican Corey Gardner, or the district’s congressman, Republican Scott Tipton. “But if this is to go anywhere, we will probably require their help,” said Belkin.

“I feel like we should continue to explore every opportunity and try to advance it soon,” said Belkin. “Things can change overnight. We will be looking at the next three or four weeks.”

He again emphasized “that getting anything through Congress is always a challenge, as we all know, and the election clearly could impact that. But our partners at Senator Bennet’s office, Freeport, the state of Colorado, and the county are all shooting to get this done. We will see what Congress will do and are hopeful this can happen this year. But we are realistic. It is a big uphill push.”

Belkin reassured the council that the bond issue for $2 million overwhelmingly passed by town voters last week will not change hands to the mining company until a mineral withdrawal is complete on the unpatented claims. He said the bill has to be passed by Congress, and signed into law by the president; Freeport then has to send a letter disposing of the claims. Only then would the town hand over the $2 million. He also reiterated that Freeport will be the entity in charge of running the water treatment plant on Red Lady. The town will not have any responsibility for the plant.

“Senator Bennet’s office has been a great champion of this avenue,” Belkin said. “Freeport has been great. The Forest Service has been great along with the state and the county. We just need a little help now with the congressional situation.

“We want to try to finish this in the lame duck session,” Belkin continued. “The bill could well be reduced to two sentences. Can we get two sentences in the federal budget amendment? That is the question.”

Water quality update

Ashley Bembenek of the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition gave a report to the council at the same meeting on the process to revise water quality standards for Coal Creek, which is a collaborative process with the Mt. Emmons Mining Company, the town, Gunnison County, the High Country Conservation Advocates and several state agencies. She was very positive and encouraged by the process.

Bembenek went over the manmade and natural sources that contribute to metals like cadmium, copper and zinc in Coal Creek. She said the Mt. Emmons Mining Company has been a very cooperative partner in dealing with improving the water quality and revising the water quality standards

“The latest plan for site characterization and eventual cleanup is excellent news for the people in town because in time it will decrease metal concentrations in Coal Creek,” she said. “When Mt. Emmons Mining Company announced its plans to reclaim the tailings impoundments, which are large piles of mine waste left over from historic operations at the site, that was going above and beyond even what was expected. I wanted to do cartwheels when I heard that. I am impressed with the steps they’ve proposed. So far they have done a great job communicating with us. It is all very different from a year ago.”

“This is all very encouraging,” added High Country Conservation Advocates Red Lady Program director Alli Melton. “These latest developments are all really positive.”

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