Colorado: Peabody’s Sage Creek mine in Routt County gets ‘cease and desist’ order for toxic selenium discharges

The U.S. is the second-largest producer of coal in the world, thanks in part to massive surface mines like this one in Wyoming. Photo courtesy BLM.

Peabody Energy put on notice for violation of state water quality standards; mining company says record 2011 runoff resulted in minor violations

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — State officials have set strict deadlines to clean up a northwestern Colorado mine that’s been discharging toxic selenium into streams south of Hayden.

Peabody Energy, operator of the Sage Creek coal mine, is on notice that it needs to develop a plan for how it will limit those discharges by mid-December, according to a formal notice of violation/cease and desist order issued Sept. 12 by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Peabody spokesperson Beth Sutton said the company is working with state regulators to ensure compliance.

“We believe the minor exceedances reported – which are measured on a standard of parts per billion – were isolated events resulting from near record spring snowmelt runoff following unusually high snowfall in Routt County,” Sutton said via email.

“The water quality of the discharges was appropriate for livestock drinking and does not impact any drinking water sources. Monitoring shows Peabody is currently in compliance with the standard, and the company continues working closely with the state’s Water Quality Control Division to ensure (continued) compliance.”

Selenium pollution from coal mines is a common problem in West Virginia and other mining areas, including British Columbia, where a number of streams in the Elk River Valley have been tainted by the mineral that generally originates from the waste rocks associated with the mines.

High concentrations of selenium are toxic to fish, causing skeletal deformities and reducing the survival rate of young fish. The EPA sets selenium standards to protect aquatic life.

According to the state notice, the Sage Creek mine may have been violating state-set water quality control regulations for 15 months, with the giant coal company potentially facing fines of up to $10,000 per day for the violations.

Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for Wildearth Guardians, said this is the first time he’s seen the state issue a violation notice for a selenium discharge.

He said the mine is Peabody Energy’s new “big play” in Colorado, with talk of potentially exporting coal to Europe or other markets.

Nichols said selenium is already a problem in the Colorado River without additional new discharges.

As a result of elevated selenium concentrations, many western Colorado rivers and streams are listed as impaired, including the main stem of the Colorado River from its confluence with the Gunnison River to the Colorado-Utah border. A 2010 USGS study suggested a gradual decline in selenium, at least in some reaches of the river.

Nichols said the state often reaches consensual agreements in situations where there is a discharge violation, a solution that can be problematic if there’s no followup enforcement.


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