Progress Made Towards a Properly Funded Water Treatment Plant and a Permanent Mine-Free Red Lady.

High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) is pleased to share an important update regarding new developments in our 39-year long effort to Save Red Lady (also known as Mt. Emmons).  On Tuesday, February 16, 2016, State agencies, the Town of Crested Butte, and Gunnison County released a proposed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding the operation of the Water Treatment Plant (WTP) that treats contaminated mine water from the old Keystone Mine prior to discharging into Coal Creek above Crested Butte.  In the MOU, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the Town of Crested Butte, and Gunnison County, along with mining company Freeport-McMoRan, outlined a series of actions that will help ensure the protection of Coal Creek, as well as continue the process of finding a permanent solution that would result in a mine-free Red Lady.  The proposed MOU is the product of discussions that commenced last fall, through which Freeport has and continues to represent that it is committed to a permanent mine-free Red Lady solution.

Friday, February 12, 2016, Freeport, through its subsidiary company the Mt. Emmons Mining Company (MEMC), acquired from the previous owner, U.S. Energy (USE), all of USE’s properties and interests on and around Red Lady.  This acquisition includes not only the privately-held ore body, but also all mine workings inside and outside the Keystone Mine, as well as the WTP, which is located on unpatented mining claims on Forest Service land.  In 2007, Freeport acquired the Phelps Dodge Corporation, making it the parent company of a subsidiary that previously had an interest in the site and constructed the WTP, which resulted in potential liability for environmental contamination at the site.

The MOU requires Freeport to fully fund the operation of the WTP for the next two years―removing the immediate threat of untreated and contaminated water from being released into Coal Creek.  There had been a very real concern that USE, due to its precarious financial situation, would not be able to continue operating the WTP, placing at risk the Town’s watershed and Coal Creek’s water quality.  This concern led HCCA to pursue litigation last October seeking to secure appropriate financial assurance (or bond) to cover the WTP’s operation as well as a plan of operations for the plant.  Under the MOU, this immediate threat is removed for at least two years.  A fully-funded WTP operation for the next two years should allow sufficient time to figure out a permanent solution that will protect Coal Creek water quality.  HCCA looks forward to working with Freeport/MEMC, the Town, County, and state and federal agencies, and others to find a successful technical solution for the longstanding water quality problems caused by historic mining.

The MOU also states that Freeport/MEMC intends to dispose of the private lands and ore body, as well as the mining claims on federal land―which would remove once and for all the threat of mining on Red Lady.  Although the actual disposition/transfer of these lands and interests has yet to occur, negotiations between Freeport/MEMC, the Town, County and state and federal agencies are ongoing and are aimed at removing the ore body and related lands/interests from federal mining laws (i.e., mining could not occur at the site).

“These developments,” said Michele Simpson, HCCA’s Executive Director, “move us closer than ever to two of HCCA’s longstanding goals: (1) ensuring Coal Creek water quality is protected, and (2) a permanently mine-free Red Lady.  Much hard work remains before we see the eventual disposition of mining and mill-site claims and fee simple land.  HCCA looks forward to playing an integral role in protecting Red Lady and working with all the interested parties to achieve a permanent mine-free solution.”

“This marks the first time since the threat of a molybdenum mine on Red Lady arose in the 1970s that the owner of all the mine properties on Red Lady says it intends to dispose of all of its interests on the mountain with the goal of ending the threat of mining Red Lady,” said Alli Melton, HCCA’s Red Lady Program Director.  “HCCA is highly encouraged by Freeport/MEMC’s commitment, along with the Town, County, and State and Federal agencies, to eliminating all rights to mine.  HCCA urges Town and County elected officials and staff to continue placing this community-supported goal as a top priority.  HCCA will, as it has for almost 40 years, continue our tireless advocacy to protect Red Lady and see that this iconic mountain will be permanently protected from mining as soon as possible.  We are looking forward to working with all the interested parties to achieve this result,” said Melton.

These issues are related to HCCA’s current lawsuit challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s failure to have any financial coverage for the operation of the WTP.  HCCA has agreed to suspend the beginning of legal briefing for a few months in order to facilitate these negotiations.

HCCA commends the Town and County for engaging the state and federal regulators and Freeport/MEMC in these discussions.  We are encouraged to see that real progress is being made.  We are committed, as always, to ensuring that Coal Creek and the Red Lady are protected forever.  We look forward to working with these parties and others to make sure the result will be a long-term, sustainable, and protective solution for our watershed and Red Lady.

The MOU and Town’s Executive Summary is available at the Town’s webpage.  Click here for the MOU and here for the Executive Summary.