Gunnison County keeping an eye on Saguache County’s mine

Concern with Tomichi Creek water quality 

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

Water quality experts and Gunnison County officials have been monitoring a proposal before a water quality control commission in neighboring Saguache County to see if local water quality might be affected by changes to the water quality standards proposed by a mining company for the inactive Pitch uranium mine there. While it appears the mining company has backed away from the plans of biggest concern to Gunnison County about drinking water supply protections, the issue may reappear in the future depending on how current hearings play out. Gunnison County, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWD), High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) and Northwest Colorado Council of Governments have requested to be named as joint parties in water control commission hearings on the subject, which are scheduled to take place this summer.  

Homestake Mining Company owns the Pitch Mine that ended production in 1981 and the company is obligated to reclaim the inactive uranium mine on national forest land in Saguache County. Homestake announced initial plans last fall to request additional time for “temporary modifications” and to consider lowering water quality standards for Marshall Creek, which is a tributary of Tomichi Creek in Gunnison County. 

Gunnison County commissioners have been concerned about the latter proposal to lower water quality standards on Marshall Creek, and after extensive discussion have decided to get involved in an upcoming hearing. 

Adopting a new ordinance?

Gunnison County commissioner Roland Mason and county attorney Matthew Hoyt listened in on talks at the end of January between Saguache County commissioners, local landowners and Homestake Mine officials. According to Mason, the mining company had offered in an ordinance proposal to drill deeper drinking water wells to aid in securing cleaner residential water sources within the town of Sargents near the base of Monarch Pass. 

County commissioner chair Jonathan Houck and Mason both expressed concern that it could create a dangerous precedent as well as adversely affecting Tomichi Creek. “It’s like moving the goal posts, but not dealing with the issue,” said Mason. He reported that no attendees or Saguache commissioners had opposed the idea during the meeting. 

Mason said later that he had spoken to a Saguache commissioner about that board’s interest in accepting Homestake’s proposed ordinance after they had reviewed it. “They did rewrite some of it, but the ordinance is still kind of the same thing…it didn’t change much,” said Mason.

Water quality commission 

hearing

Water quality expert Ashley Bembenek updated commissioners on the issue in late February. Bembenek represents the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, water quality/water quantity committee (QQ) of which Gunnison County is a member. 

In her last briefing to commissioners following the November 2021 water quality control commission hearing, Bembenek had expressed concerns about Homestake’s plans to both extend their temporary modification to the uranium standard going to Marshall Creek and to potentially remove the water supply use from Marshall Creek. 

The temporary modifications are a tool to allow the mine time to address uncertainty regarding uranium sources, the extent to which clean up activities can remove uranium and the appropriate water quality standard to protect existing and future water supplies in Marshall Creek. 

“I believe that the basis to continue temporary modifications is acceptable, but again I remain very concerned about the potential proposal to remove the water supply,” said Bembenek.

At this point, Homestake has asked only to extend the temporary modification, noted Bembenek, “So they are not removing the water supply use at the moment.” But she cautioned that if the water supply protections were removed from Marshall Creek, that could have downstream effects on Tomichi Creek. “There are several drinking water wells that are likely recharged by water from Tomichi Creek. That’s why we care about uranium in both Marshall Creek and Tomichi Creek. Excess consumption of uranium can cause liver and kidney issues,” she said. 

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), “uranium is a suspected human carcinogen.”

The preliminary hearing process with the water quality control commission is now underway and it will conclude with the formal hearing scheduled in June 2022. Gunnison County has submitted a request for party status consideration through that process. Proposal responses and related party concerns will be due in April and rebuttals will take place in May. Parties to the hearing and the public may provide comments prior to the formal June hearing. 

 “The other issue we’ve discussed was a concern about the precedent it sets,” said Houck. “If they are successful in basically saying we can limit future use instead of being responsible for our actions—that’s a very coarse way to put it out there, but that’s a concern.”

Bembenek said that if Saguache adopted an ordinance, that would also create some implementation work for Saguache County. “That’s another precedent,” she said and recommended that Gunnison County ask for water quality and flow monitoring in Tomichi Creek downstream from Marshall Creek.  

Bembenek said she would also like to look at water quality data collected recently from homeowner wells along the Tomichi, to see whether it is possible to establish a baseline. 

Commissioner Liz Smith asked what could be done to ask for restoration as well. 

Bembenek said that while the process is complex, an argument could be made that, “If you acquired rights to mine a contaminated site, you also acquired the rights to clean it up.” She said water quality standards must be reviewed at least every three years and clean up goals are generally established based on a 20-year timeline. 

“It’s an issue of concern for us, all things water…. Even if it comes from outside of the county, we’re connected through the hydrology,” said Houck. 

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