Commentary

CDPHE alleges water quality violations by Boulder County mining company

Effluent discharge of heavy metals from Cross and Caribou Mines exceeded permitted limits, state says

November 17, 2021 5:22 pm

A view from Caribou Road in Boulder County overlooking mining containment ponds. (Trish Zornio/Colorado Newsline)

Colorado water quality regulators have issued a cease and desist order to the owner of two hard-rock mines located just outside the town of Nederland, alleging the mines have discharged potentially hazardous pollutants well in excess of permitted levels into nearby watersheds.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division issued a notice of violation on Nov. 5 to Grand Island Resources, LLC, which acquired the Cross and Caribou Mines in western Boulder County after the death of former owner and miner Tom Hendricks in 2020.

The violation notice came after a series of compliance advisories were sent to the company over the summer. The November notice alleges a failure to comply with current water quality standards, citing multiple excess effluent discharges of heavy metals during the months of December 2020 to August 2021, as well as a failure to comply with required reporting of additional water pollutants.

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Pollutants listed in the violation for exceeding the daily or monthly limits included lead, copper, zinc, silver and cadmium, with the self-monitored data showing several occasions where effluent discharges exceeded levels by up to three or four times the permitted amounts. 

Grand Island Resources is currently permitted through the state to release treated wastewater via one outfall into Coon Track Creek within the specified effluent limits. The need to stay within these limits is underscored by the fact that the small creek serves as a tributary in the Boulder Creek watershed, ultimately joining another creek through the town of Nederland and flowing into the Barker Reservoir, one of several potable water sources for the city of Boulder.

In high concentrations, heavy metals are well documented to cause impacts to the environment and human health, including the ability to accumulate in the body over time and cause disease. Critically, the 2021 report of Boulder’s drinking water quality — which employs data from 2020 — reported no violations for lead or copper levels, and no public health advisories have been issued to date.

A U.S. Geological Survey map shows the area surrounding Nederland and Barker Reservoir. (USGS)

Direct water quality testing for the natural spring located off Caribou Road — a spring often utilized by locals and recreational visitors — was not immediately available, nor was the immediate source of the spring known. 

Representatives of Grand Island Resources did not respond to requests for comment.

This is not the first time compliance advisories or notices of violations have been issued by CDPHE for the Cross and Caribou Mines. Publicly available documents show repeated enforcement actions regarding either excess effluent discharge or a failure to comply with reporting standards of treated wastewater dating back to the 1980s under previous ownership. 

The current notice of violation for heavy metal water contaminants comes as Grand Island Resources is seeking revision of its current state permit, having filed for review with the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, a branch of the state Department of Natural Resources, on Feb. 8. No determination has been made to date, with a pending response required from the mining company to proceed. At the same time, the notice of violation has been scheduled for a hearing before the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board on Dec. 15 to 16. 

Grand Island Resources is also currently operating under a special use development agreement with the county of Boulder, according to Jesse Rounds, a senior planner with Boulder County Community Planning and Permitting. Rounds explained that this agreement is separate from the state mining permit and was acquired in the transfer of mine ownership. 

According to Rounds, so long as the existing agreement is upheld, the agreement remains in place indefinitely. However, the county is now currently reviewing if the requested modifications to the state would continue to uphold the existing special use agreement, or if a full special use review may be necessary.

The Cross and Caribou Mines were once estimated to potentially be worth billions of dollars in gold, raising questions as to the long-term scale of mining to be conducted by the new company, and the subsequent implications for Boulder County.

Mining has had an enormous impact on Nederland’s history,” Nederland Mayor Kris Larsen said in an interview. “It’s why our town exists in the first place, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be part of our future as the demand for domestically sourced minerals is only going to grow. But it can’t be done like it’s been done. It has to be done in a responsible way that protects our air, water, and common environment.”

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Trish Zornio
Trish Zornio

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation's top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.

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