SAN MIGUEL COUNTY – A settlement was reached late last month between Sheep Mountain Alliance and PacifiCorp that obligates the company to investigate and take further remediation actions on the Silver Bell Tailings located near the Ophir turn on U.S. Hwy. 145.
Since 1998, PacifiCorp has taken voluntary steps to cap, stabilize and clean the mine tailings deposited by the Silver Bell Mill in the 1950s. For the past two years, that completed remediation work on the tailings have been in a monitoring stage. So far, the remediation work has been unsuccessful in keeping the Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality standards for the San Miguel River at acceptable levels.
Roughly one year ago, when, according to Sheep Mountain Alliance Director Hilary Cooper, the organization was “combing” through EPA water data from the San Miguel River, downstream from the tailings, “alarming” records they believed to be Clean Water Act violations turned up.
SMA eventually brought a citizen Clean Water Act lawsuit against PacificCorp , alleging liability due to years of illegal discharges of heavy metals, acidic drainage and other pollutants from the impoundment. All of those mine contaminants, the lawsuit alleged, were flowing out of the Silver Bell Tailings impoundment and into the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River, despite the remediation work that had been completed on the site.
The lawsuit eventually led to a mediation process between SMA and PacifiCorp, resulting in a settlement and a consent decree announced March 21. In the settlement, both parties agreed to use a third-party expert to analyze and recommend a way forward that both parties could agree on. PacifiCorp has agreed to embark on four-step monitoring process of the tailings that will determine where the specific source of the contamination is located; once that is found, PacifiCorp will come to the table with a proposed correction.
“What we believe is that it will lead to a replacement of the tailings cap,” Cooper said. “But this way, with an in-depth analysis of the contamination sources, we think a new cap will be engineered in a way that will have a higher chance at success than what is there right now.”
PacifiCorp never actually deposited mine tailings, but did lease on which the mine tailings were deposited in 1941. At one time, Western Colorado Power, once a part of Utah Power, owned and leased the land, but Utah Power has since sold all working assets off, including that parcel of land to PacifiCorp.
As part of that consent decree, PacifiCorp agreed to do monitoring work this summer on the tailings and must then come up with a new remediation recommendation by 2014.
“Essentially, they are trying to do the right thing but they didn’t have the right information in order to stop the contamination from happening the first time,” Cooper said. “We forced this project by bringing in a needed technical expert. It was a positive negotiation and I think it is a strong consent decree for both parties.”
In addition to the management plan action, PacifiCorp has also agreed to pay $150,000 to the San Miguel Watershed Coalition. Under federal law, polluters found accountable under the Clean Water Act are required to pay funds in lieu of civil penalties toward local watersheds.
The funds will be applied to the restoration of the Priest Lake reservoir. The restoration project will be conducted through a public-private partnership comprised of SMWC, the United States Forest Service, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, and other conservation groups and will restore the healthy fish habitat, water storage capacity and scenic attributes of the Priest Lake recreation area.