Working For More Protective Water Quality Standards on Coal Creek

Throughout the end of last year, HCCA continued our longstanding effort to resolve the use of temporary modifications for water quality standards on Coal Creek. Temporary modifications are meant to be used only for a handful of years until a discharger (U.S. Energy’s discharge from the water treatment plant in this instance) can determine how or whether they will be able to comply with more stringent standards. In our instance, temporary modifications for chronic cadmium and zinc have been in place for over two decades. Over the last several years, a Study Plan has been implemented seeking to gain data to resolve uncertainty of whether naturally-occurring or human-induced sources caused these higher metal levels.

In 2014, we successfully advocated for better process throughout 2015 that would involve regular check-in calls to discuss U.S. Energy’s continued implementation of the Study Plan. This process has allowed HCCA, Coal Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC), Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), the Water Quality Control Division, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to raise questions and concerns where implementation has fallen short of addressing one of the more significant questions: what’s the hydrologic effect of the flooded Keystone Mine workings on groundwater and Coal Creek? As a result, U.S. Energy modified a November sampling event and incorporate expertise from CCWC into their sampling process. Although we have yet to see the results of this data, HCCA is hopeful that this sampling event may be useful for resolving this question.

In December 2015, with the Study Plan concluded, U.S. Energy sought an eighteen-month extension of the temporary modifications. HCCA challenged this extension request highlighting U.S. Energy’s failure to demonstrate how the extension would lead to the resolution of the temporary modifications. We called on the Water Quality Control Commission to ensure, if it allowed for yet another extension, the regular check-in calls would continue. We also pointed to the necessity of a timeline with actions U.S. Energy was to take during the extension so water quality standards would be adopted by the next expiration of the temporary modifications. We had success on both these fronts, and throughout 2016, there will continue to be calls and updates so HCCA, CCWC, EPA, CPW, and the Water Quality Control Division can monitor progress towards setting protective water quality standards on Coal Creek.

We also advocated that the Commission adopt or incorporate numeric values that reflect current ambient conditions on Coal Creek into the document that may extend the temporary modifications. These values were derived through CCWC’s analysis of the data collected over the course of the three-year Study Plan. As such, we asked for these values inform the process or at the very least include them in the Commission’s decision document. Even though this was firmly supported and requested for by CCWC and the Town of Crested Butte, HCCA, EPA, and CPW, the Water Quality Control Division and U.S. Energy opposed it and the Commission deferred to the Division’s opposition. However, our work was not for naught, as these ambient conditions are on the record and therefore still have significant value as we continuing moving towards setting protective water quality standards for Coal Creek.

Throughout this year, HCCA will continue collaboration with the parties discussed above, monitoring U.S. Energy’s progress, and participating in the hearing process that will take place again this December, to checking-in on U.S. Energy’s progress made throughout the year. We will continue advocating for the application of fair process, sound science, and methods so we can ensure that strong, effective, permanent water quality standards will protect our Coal Creek from future degradation.