Decision will come in April
Gunnison County, the town of Crested Butte and High Country Citizens’ Alliance will have the chance in April to argue for greater financial and environmental controls over companies permitted to operate a wastewater treatment facility on Mt. Emmons.
The facility is currently being run by U.S. Energy Corp, one of the companies proposing a molybdenum mine on the mountain located just west of Crested Butte.
On Friday, November 28, an administrative judge with the division agreed to the hearing between the three proponents of the changes and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division. The state agency initially ruled last summer that they couldn’t legally do what is being asked.
“The hearing is a formality, but we’ll be happy if we can make an effective argument and have our recommendations added to the permit,” says Crested Butte town attorney John Belkin.
In comments sent to the Division last May, the county, the town and HCCA asked that financial safeguards be added to the permit requirements for the facility, which treats wastewater from the old Keystone mine.
One of the recommended changes would require the company applying for the permit to put up funds to operate the facility in case the company fell on hard times and was no longer able to operate.
In July, U.S. Energy was granted a five-year permit to operate the facility and assumed the $1 million annual cost of operation, according to the company.
To make sure water users downstream of the facility aren’t stuck with the bill, or the consequences of leakage, HCCA, the town and the county recommended the permit require a “prepaid operating contract,” an “irrevocable letter of credit” or other security to ensure funding for the operation.
They are also asking that the state review the finances of permit applicants in the future, to confirm the company’s resources are adequate to cover the costs or have the financial backing of a parent company under contract.
In response to the recommendations, the division said it had no legal authority to require funding for future operations or look into a company’s financial standing.
In a letter sent to the division in August, asking for the adjudicatory hearing, the proponents point to parts of the law that grant the authority as a way of fostering “the health, welfare and safety of the inhabitants of the state of Colorado.”
“The absence of an explicit requirement does not mean that there is no authority to impose such a requirement,” the letter says.
According to U.S. Energy, if the facility were to stop operations, for infrastructure or financing reasons, water coming from the mine could be collected for 10-13 days before the untreated water would overflow the holding tanks and contaminate Coal Creek.
“A bypass of untreated discharges from the Lucky Jack Mine resulting from a failure or shutdown of the wastewater treatment facility … would be catastrophic for the local community and the state,” the proponents’ letter says.
The recommendations also reach beyond financing the operation to include measures in the permit that would improve the current quality of water in Coal Creek.
It says, “There is evidence that contaminated surface waters are originating from the Lucky Jack Mine property, and being discharged to Coal Creek without treatment by the WWTF (wastewater treatment facility).”
To account for the possibility that streams are being polluted below the facility’s discharge point, the comments also include a recommendation that water should be tested in sections of Coal Creek that are closer to the Town of Crested Butte.
Under the current permit, U.S. Energy is only required to test the water quarterly, which doesn’t accurately document the change in the source, or level, of stream water throughout the runoff months, the proponents say.
The recommendations say testing has shown “significant exceedances of water quality standards” in Coal Creek from March to June.
On the other extreme, the proponents are also asking that the stream be more closely monitored above the facility during low flow.
Because there is so little water during the summer months to dilute discharged wastewater in the stream, small differences in stream flow can change the amount of wastewater being released into Coal Creek.
The concern is that the stream could be gauged at a higher level than what it actually is, allowing for more discharge from the facility and more pollutants in the stream than the system can handle.
In addition to more frequent testing of stream water, the recommendations ask that the state require ground water testing below the mine’s tailings piles and retention pond, where seepage could go undetected and untested.
Until a decision on the recommendations is made, the plant will be operated under the requirements of the current permit.