Local groups agree to mine company concept proposal on water quality

Sees real progress is being made

by Mark Reaman

For perhaps the first time ever, the local governments and watchdogs of Coal Creek are supporting a concept put forward by the owners of the Mt. Emmons mine and water treatment plant when it comes to monitoring water quality in Coal Creek.

The Coal Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC), the High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), the town of Crested Butte and Gunnison County have all agreed to a mining company proposal to implement seasonal temporary modifications and aquatic life water quality standards with the Colorado Water Quality Control Division through the year 2022.

In a joint response statement to the state Water Quality Control Commission, the so-called Joint Respondents (HCCA, the CCWC, the town and county) believe the Mt. Emmons Mining Company (MEMC) has demonstrated a strong commitment to a collaborative approach to improve Coal Creek water quality.

“We are still in the hearing process so things are continuing to develop but the Mt. Emmons Mining Company put forward a proposal and we as a group responded to the state and said we support many of the concepts,” explained HCCA Red Lady program director Alli Melton.

The MEMC, a subsidiary of global mining giant Freeport McMoRan, proposed the continuation of “seasonal” temporary modifications and the four groups agreed with the idea that seasonal standards “better characterize current ambient conditions, document seasonal variation and represent significant progress in eliminating uncertainty in water quality conditions in Coal Creek.”

The groups have been frustrated in the past when the state continually allowed the mine owners to use temporary modifications to monitor water quality in Coal Creek. But the current owners have narrowed the use of the modifications to the high run-off season and Melton said that is huge progress.

“It’s a refreshing change to now have an owner and operator of the water treatment plant that is serious about taking on-the-ground actions that are expected to reduce heavy metal loading in Coal Creek,” said Melton. “For the first time we are looking at concrete actions that are going to benefit water quality in Coal Creek. In short, although we are not currently setting standards, collected data has narrowed the application of temporary modifications. Over the next few years, we can expect on-the-ground actions to further reduce loading that will further benefit water quality in Coal Creek.”

The joint statement said the groups support the extension, given “the commitment MEMC has made to work to eliminate temporary modifications, resolve uncertainty, and continue meetings with stakeholders. The Joint Respondents are hopeful that temporary modifications may be eliminated prior to 2022 as more data is developed.”

Ashley Bembenek of the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition believes the cooperation being seen between local stakeholders and the mining company is providing dividends for everyone. “If MEMC’s proposal is adopted, the temporary modifications would apply until 2022. We support this extension because MEMC has proposed to characterize conditions at the Keystone Mine Property and use that information to complete projects that will improve water quality in Coal Creek,” Bembenek explained in an email to the News.

“Once the effect of work at the site on water quality has been measured, then we will have more information to determine appropriate water quality standards,” continued Bembenek. “MEMC has also committed to continue communicating with local stakeholders regarding activities at the Keystone Mine Property and to collaboratively revise water quality standards in the future. Because of MEMC’s commitments, CCWC feels an extension of the temporary modifications is the most effective way to assure that water quality improvements occur in the Coal Creek watershed.”

Crested Butte town attorney John Belkin agreed that while details remain to be figured out, the concepts on the table show a new degree of teamwork and that teamwork will benefit the local community.

“The collaborative approach set up by the WQCD allows the community an opportunity to work with MEMC to identify the best way to deal with stream standards downstream of the Keystone treatment plant. At this point, several technical questions remain about the best approach, which will be discussed with MEMC in the stakeholder process before we get to the hearing itself,” said Belkin. “MEMC’s commitment to openness ensures that the community’s interests are part of the process. We are all working collaboratively through the process and all indications are that that will continue for the foreseeable future.”

The groups made it clear to the state that while they have been engaged in water quality efforts on Coal Creek for many decades, “since MEMC acquired the Keystone Mine property, stakeholder communications, transparency, and relationships have improved dramatically as a result of MEMC’s leadership and the Division’s close attention to the stakeholder process.”

Melton said there are many historical instances in which the community has stood together working to secure a mine-free Red Lady and protect water quality on Coal Creek. This joint statement to the state, Melton said, is just one more example of that sort of action.

The state commission will make a decision on the request in June.

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