Town contributes to project meant to filter minerals from Coal Creek

Small contribution could result in significant impacts

[  By Mark Reaman  ]

The town of Crested Butte is hoping a relatively modest contribution will have a big impact on water quality in Coal Creek. The town council agreed on March 21 to commit to donate $65,000 over five years to support a Coal Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC) proposal to restore a gossan located in the town’s watershed on Mt. Emmons three miles west of town. Crested Butte public works director Shea Earley described a gossan as a naturally occurring mineralized geologic formation. 

According to Ashley Bembenek of the CCWC, that organization along with several other organizations have identified the gossan as a major source of metals in the Coal Creek Watershed. She said the CCWC began exploring options to restore the gossan as early as 2011. Although very important to the health of Coal Creek, the project was tabled for a number of reasons.

“In November 2021, the State’s Natural Resource Damages (NRD) program announced that there was a settlement that would provide more than $230,000.00 for restoration and water quality improvement projects in Gunnison County,” Bembenek explained. “The settlement is part of a larger penalty paid by Standard Metals, that once operated the Standard Mine. In the last several months, CCWC hosted a number of stakeholder meetings to identify a local project. After much discussion and data analysis, it’s clear that the gossan restoration project is the best candidate for the settlement funds. We are thrilled that the Town of Crested Butte, Gunnison County, and the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety have signed on to support the project along with the landowners, MEMC and the USFS.”

According to Earley, the project would “establish vegetation and improve drainage pathways to reduce erosion and metals mobilization from the portion of the gossan that was burned in the late 1970s due to a fire started by welding activities at the Keystone Mine site. By increasing vegetation density and improving water drainage patterns, the project partners hope to reduce metals loading in Coal Creek upstream of the town’s drinking water supply intake.”

Earley projected that even if the project results in a 20% reduction in mineral loading, it will have “substantial water quality and environmental benefits.”

The project is estimated to cost $1.5 million. The gossan is located on both land controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and the Mt. Emmons Mining Company (MEMC). Earley indicated MEMC has tentatively agreed to fund the project to the tune of $720,000. The Upper Gunnison River Basin Natural Resources Damages Fund is contributing $240,000. Town will donate $20,000 for the first and second year of construction which is scheduled to start in 2024 and last two to three years. After that the town will contribute $5,000 annually for five years for project monitoring. The town is also on board to help develop and administer a watershed permit for the project.

In his memo to council, Earley stated that the gossan is one of the largest contributors to metals loading in Coal Creek so the project is expected to significantly decrease metals loading into Coal Creek. The project thus could reduce the treatment load at the town’s water treatment plant. He said that the resulting decreased metal concentrations, particularly zinc, may reduce the need for capital improvements and additional energy and material consumption at the water and wastewater treatment facilities.

Mayor Ian Billick thanked the staff for finding the time and resources to participate in such projects given all the other issues in front of them.

Bembenek said the CCWC is putting the finishing touches on the NRD application this week. “We hope to hear back from the NRD program in September,” she said. “In the meantime, we’ll be writing additional grants to fund this project. If our wonderful community is so inclined, CCWC is also fundraising for the project- please visit www.coalcreek.org to learn more!”

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