Trying to avoid a pattern within mining industry
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
Gunnison County has joined environmental group High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in calling for action at the site of Marble’s well-known Yule Marble quarry where Colorado Stone Quarries, Inc. (CSQ) has changed the alignment of Yule Creek and also spilled diesel fuel in the area. Gunnison County commissioners and local environmental groups have now weighed in requesting that the U.S Army Corps of Engineers examine and hold the quarry accountable for its actions, and in the meantime CSQ is now seeking a retro-active permit for the work it has done.
The issue first arose when in October 2019, approximately 5,500 gallons of diesel spilled from above-ground storage tanks at the quarry in close proximity to the Franklin Ridge and the natural western alignment of Yule Creek. The diesel did not spill into Yule Creek, because the creek had been newly diverted to the east side of the mining operations at Franklin Ridge, and that drew attention from local and federal regulators.
The Army Corps of Engineers, Sacramento District got involved to evaluate whether the creek diversion should have been permitted under the Clean Water Act. According to the Corps, the former channel of Yule Creek was filled with approximately 97,000 cubic yards of native materials to create a permanent road access to the existing mine operation, and CSQ conducted the realignment activities under the assumption the work was exempt from the Clean Water Act. The Corps has determined it was not exempt.
The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety is directing remediation of the diesel spill and has so far been successful, according to the Corps, but it is expected to take several years.
In a public notice dated October 15, 2020, the Corps announced it was evaluating “an after-the-fact permit application to maintain fill materials within the natural alignment of 1,600 linear feet of Yule Creek and within the relocated alignment of Yule Creek for the purpose of expanding an existing marble mining operation.” The notice sought to inform interested parties and solicit comments.
Gunnison County submitted comments and a formal request in mid-December that the Corps “robustly monitor Yule Creek” and the Crystal River into which it flows, as well as down-gradient of the unpermitted fill to ensure contamination is eliminated; that the Corps require full on-site and down-gradient restoration of riparian and macro-invertebrate life; that mitigation be required on Yule Creek and the Crystal River; that the Raggeds Wilderness proximity to the unpermitted fill be considered holistically; that public access be restored to the historic site of the former mine access road as previously agreed; and that a public hearing is necessary.
Matt Reed, HCCA public lands director, commented that Gunnison County did the right thing by submitting a comment letter. “What we are asking for is a full Environmental Impact Study and full fines for the violations that have occurred and contemplate using those fines to support compensatory litigation and restoration,” said Reed. He said this unpermitted realignment and filling represents a pattern within Gunnison County that is troubling.
Bucking a trend
“I’ve seen this pattern of really shoddy practices from the mining industries in Gunnison County,” said Reed, noting the illegal road built last year at West Elk Coal Mine and then the mine making miscalculations in the distance between ground level and the top of underground mining that “swallowed up a creek there.”
“It is a gross dereliction of public trust and transparency. It’s frustrating observing it and makes me think these mining industries are determining it is best to build first and seek approval later. They can’t get off with a slap on the wrist here on principle.
“It’s such an abuse of power. And even though it is in an area that most of our residents don’t visit much, I think if the people of Crested Butte saw the extent of this, they would be angry,” concluded Reed.
Reed also commented on other recent developments, including the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) second approval for two Upper North Fork Valley drilling projects for up to 226 natural gas wells.
“We are contemplating next steps,” said Reed of HCCA’s alliance against the decision. The wells are estimated to release up to 15.66 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over a 30-year period.
“We were disappointed to see this decision in the waning hours of the Trump administration. Because that’s a lot of wells and that’s a lot of climate change pollution.”
But there are other glimmers of encouragement, Reed noted. The state of Colorado has sued the BLM this month over its Resource Management Plan for the Uncompahgre Field Office, and seeks to invalidate the RMP. The RMP governs mineral extraction and other land uses on federal lands spanning five counties in southwestern Colorado, including Gunnison. HCCA and it partners had filed a similar lawsuit in the fall.
“I think the state noted that the plan we released is really compatible and supportive of that lawsuit,” said Reed. “And it shows that the state is engaged in public lands issues in our backyard, and really wants to see what’s best for public lands, wildlife and sustainable recreation. None of that was in the [BLM] plan that was approved.”
CSQ was contacted for comments, as was the Gunnison County attorney’s office, but neither responded as of press time.