HCCA Sues the Forest Service for Failing to Have an Approved Plan of Operations, Financial Assurance Bond, and Public Review for Facility Treating Acid Mine Drainage into Coal Creek Above the Town of Crested Butte

 

Conservation Group Challenges the Forest Service’s Failure to Insure Sufficient Funds are in Place to Cover Costs of U.S. Energy Owned Water Treatment Plant; a Situation that has Become Only More Concerning as U.S. Energy’s Financial Situation Continues to Deteriorate

 

October 5, 2015

CRESTED BUTTE and DENVER, COLORADO – High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), a nonprofit grassroots conservation organization based in Crested Butte, filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Forest Service in federal district court in Denver for the agency’s failure to have an approved Plan of Operations (PoO) and a bond or financial assurance in place for a Water Treatment Plant (WTP) on Forest Service lands that is owned by U.S. Energy Corp (USE). A PoO and bond are necessary to guarantee that the operation and maintenance of the WTP, which currently operates year-round to prevent untreated highly contaminated acid mine drainage from entering local streams, will continue to operate without interruption.

HCCA has sought to resolve the lack of PoO and bond with the Forest Service for years. The agency conceded that the law requires an approved PoO and bond for the on-going treatment operation located on Forest Service land, but nevertheless failed to require any. The agency has never required USE to have a bond in place to cover the costs to operate the WTP, and has never conducted any environmental review of the WTP’s operation―both requirements of federal environmental and mining regulatory law.

The WTP costs USE roughly $1.8 to $2 million annually to operate (daily operations are contracted out to another company) to treat acid mine drainage from the flooded and un-reclaimed Keystone Mine workings on the south side of Mt. Emmons so this contaminated water does not enter the watershed untreated. The treatment is needed to ensure that heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, zinc are not released into Coal Creek in violation of water quality standards. Mt. Emmons is locally referred to as the “Red Lady” and is an iconic mountain in the Crested Butte Valley that creates the Town’s western skyline. Over the course of the last year, USE’s financial situation has continued to deteriorate, starting with the decline of oil and gas prices last year.

The Keystone Mine discharging the contaminated water is within the Town of Crested Butte’s watershed. The WTP is located about 3 miles west (upstream) of Crested Butte on the north side of the Kebler Pass Road. This is where the treated water is discharged into Coal Creek, which then flows through downtown Crested Butte and then into the Slate River before entering the East River which then becomes the Gunnison River. The WTP was constructed in 1979-1980 and began operations shortly thereafter. Beginning in 1982, the Forest stated in numerous letters to the company that a bond, PoO, and environmental reviews―including public review of the operations on public land―are required.

The WTP currently treats about 350 gallons per minute of contaminated waters. The lack of a PoO and bond has been a significant concern for HCCA and residents of the community and has become only more concerning as USE’s financial situation continues its downward spiral.

“The Forest Service can’t continue to sweep this pressing issue under the rug at the risk of our communities’ water quality―especially in the wake of the catastrophic spill and continuing pollution from the Gold King Mine in the San Juan Mountains above Silverton and Durango,” said Alli Melton, HCCA’s Public Lands Director. “We have been raising this issue with the agency for years now because without a bond, it’s an accident waiting to happen. This toxic acid mine drainage occurs just a few miles above Town and if un-treated water enters Coal Creek, it would flow through the heart of Crested Butte and down towards Gunnison, threatening the public’s health and our thriving local economy. It’s time the Forest Service does what’s in the public interest and what it’s required to do. Our water, health, community, and vibrant local economy needs protection from this looming threat to our water.”

“Although the agency and the company may argue that USE intends to continue to operate the plant, the company’s current financial situation, and recent events in Colorado, show that such promises ring hollow and clearly do not protect the public,” noted Melton. “The agency’s decision to put the interests of the company ahead of the health and safety of the residents of Crested Butte cannot be allowed to stand,” said Melton.

“As an avid recreation outdoor enthusiast who grew up on the East River and has appreciated the access and availability to clean rivers and streams in our valley for my entire life, it is very apparent that water is the lifeblood of not only our valley, but every community downstream of the Gunnison Basin,” said Alex Ewert, a native Gunnison County resident and life-long hunter and angler. “The Forest Service’s failure to require a sufficient bond leaves the Gunnison Basin community and our vibrant ranching and outdoor recreation based economy exposed to an unacceptable risk. This is a glaring example of ‘passing-the-buck’ we see mining companies do time and time again. Too often these companies do the bare minimum to scrape by and once they’ve gotten what they want from the land or can’t continue to finance their speculative venture, they up and leave. This leaves behind communities and local economies that suffer for decades if not perpetually from the negative health and environmental costs the private mining sector created. I’ve had enough of taxpayers subsidizing private mining companies’ costs and dealing with the environmental fallout this sector leaves behind. And I don’t want my community and the Gunnison River headwaters to suffer this fate. It’s irresponsible for the Forest Service to continue its head-in-the-sand approach that puts our local economy and water at stake.”

The Forest Service admitted in a 2012 decision: “No bond currently exists for this very extensive operation on National Forest System lands. In accordance with 36 CFR 228.13(a), a reclamation bond is appropriate and is required.” Despite this, the agency has refused to require USE to post a bond to cover the significant costs to run the WTP, nor allowed any public review of the operations on Mt. Emmons.

“Federal law is clear,” noted Roger Flynn, Director and Managing Attorney of the Western Mining Action Project (WMAP), a Lyons, CO based non-profit public interest law firm which represents HCCA in the litigation. “All mining activities on public lands, including active water treatment operations, must be covered by an approved Plan of Operations subject to public review, and a bond to cover all of the short and long-term costs to protect water quality,” said Flynn. “There is no excuse for the Forest Service to shut out public review and continue to jeopardize the waters of the Gunnison Valley and the citizens and economy of Crested Butte,” said Flynn.

For more information about HCCA’s 38-year long effort to Save Red Lady, and a copy of the Complaint filed in federal court today, along with the relevant documents noted above, visit saveredlady.org or hccacb.org.

Contacts:

Alli Melton, High Country Conservation Advocates, (o) 970-349-7104 ext. 2
Roger Flynn, Western Mining Action Project, (o) 303-823-5738