After a three-day hearing on whether Peak Materials would be awarded a state permit for a gravel mining operation north of Silverthorne, a decision has finally been made: The permit application was rejected.
Nearly nine hours after the final day of the hearing began Thursday, April 29, the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board voted unanimously to deny Peak Materials’ permit application. Board members cited concerns with hydrologic balance, wildlife and reclamation.
“I really do feel like there’s a real chance that the people that are sitting up there in that fracking area have their water supply further damaged,” board member John Singletary said. “I still have a real question about what’s going to happen on the Blue River. I think those questions haven’t been answered.”
Singletary added that he was disappointed in the company for a lack of outreach to neighboring residents. Board member Tim Mauck said he was concerned that the reclamation plan did not provide aesthetic value to the area, and board member Karin Utterback-Norman commented on the reclamation plan’s vegetation, which she said should be different than what was proposed to better fit the landscape.
Board member Nell Wareham-Morris said she was concerned about the post-mining use of rangeland, stating that she doesn’t see how the site could be well used after reclamation. She was also bothered by the minimal dialogue between Peak Materials and neighbors of the site.
“The applicant did reach out to those within the feet that they were supposed to do with the property line, but the awareness of who are your stakeholders in the valley and giving them the opportunity to have a true dialogue … it’s all possible, we’re all sharing these same valleys, we’re all sharing these same resources, and this needs to be a two-way dialogue,” Wareham-Morris said.
Board Chair Lauren Duncan said her concerns with the application were in regard to hydrologic issues and wildlife.
“The opportunity for the animals to move through the land as they currently do, I don’t see any opportunity for that,” Duncan said. “And finally, the hydrologic balance here, I think there’s been an effort through this application to monitor the impacts to the hydrologic balance, but I’m not sure it’s been to minimize them.”
Duncan also stated that she would hate to be part of a permit that could negatively impact a fragile segment of the Blue River.
In the third day of the hearing, the applicant for the project, Peak Materials, and the objectors, neighboring residents of the site, rebutted previous testimony from the opposing side and shared final comments on the application with the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board.
Peak Materials had several points to its rebuttal, including no groundwater would be exposed during the first phase of the project, that there is no risk to neighboring wells, there would be no processing of materials on-site and the company is addressing wildlife interests as directed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Peak Materials mining engineer Ben Langenfeld explained the company does not expect to interfere with any groundwater. He said the groundwater level at its highest point would define the bottom of where Peak Materials would dig and there would be a 2-foot buffer between the high-water level and the point where digging would stop. In the event that operators hit wet ground, which would indicate they were digging too deep, he noted the spot would be backfilled immediately.
“This 2 feet of buffer above the groundwater table is a common requirement that the division staff imposes, and it’s an effective requirement,” Langenfeld said. “There are a lot of sand and gravel mines in Colorado that stop above groundwater that use this exact set of limits and controls and operate successfully. What we’re proposing here isn’t outlandish, new or difficult to do.”
Mined Land Reclamation Board member Wareham-Morris asked Langenfeld how Peak Materials would ensure sediment and dust wouldn’t go into a water ditch that runs through the site and makes its way to the Blue River. Langenfeld said the plan includes draining disturbance away from the ditch and wetting the ground to make sure there isn’t much dust, so the company isn’t concerned with sediment falling into the ditch. He added that Peak Materials would not be processing mined materials on the site.
During the objectors’ rebuttal, Steven Mulliken, who represents the group Lower Blue Residents United, introduced experts who countered claims that groundwater would not be disturbed. West Sage Water Consultants Water Resources Engineer Laurel Stadjuhar stated that there is more variation in groundwater levels than is shown in the application, which she said fails to minimize impacts to hydrology. She also discussed water quality, stating degradation to water quality from groundwater moving through the mining pits would impact neighboring water wells and the Blue River.
The applicant’s reclamation plan was also called into question, as Aridlands Senior Ecologist Richard Alward stated topsoil protections were inadequate and that vegetation included nonnative species of plants.
“There should be no free pass for ecosystem degradation attributable to a land owner’s poor management,” Alward said. “The revegetation plan does not conform to the rule requirements.”
The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety recommended the board grant conditional approval of the permit application in March based on the division’s determination that the application satisfied requirements of the Colorado Land Reclamation Act and because Peak Materials addressed adequacy issues identified during the division’s adequacy review. The division said during the hearing that it feels rangeland is an acceptable post-mining plan for the site — which was called into question — and pointed out that the site of the proposed mine is private property owned by the applicant and is not public open space.
During the closing statements segment of the hearing, Mulliken presented a summary of concerns, which included that the gravel pits would become “anaerobic and putrid” over time and water in the pits will migrate to groundwater and the Blue River.
“The design of these pits completely missed the mark,” Mulliken said. “They’re not well done, and they’re going to pose a threat … to wildlife and aquatic life.”
Mulliken stated that he is not arguing every pit adjacent to a sand mine or gravel mine should not be permitted but that it should not be permitted at the proposed site because the site is in a unique, protected area. Friends of the Lower Blue River Executive Director Jonathan Knopf called the permit request a “clear and present danger” to the Blue River Valley.
Chris Neumann, principal shareholder at Greenberg Traurig, began closing arguments from the applicant and highlighted the company’s commitment to present a plan that mitigated the impacts of mining operations as much as possible. He questioned the science behind information presented by objectors.
“The objectors … rely upon individual data points, reconnaissance level information,” Neumann said. “They don’t apply any methodology. They don’t suggest — and they can’t — that they’ve done a delineation. That’s not their point. Their point is to raise concerns and these concerns have been addressed all through this process.”
Neumann also said objectors glossed over recommendations Peak Materials has implemented into its plan.
“All aspects of the mining and reclamation plan take into account safety and protection of wildlife on the mine site, including trout populations in the Blue River. … The division explained several of the measures Peak has taken to mitigate impacts,” Neumann said, citing surveys, plans for removing internal fencing, limitations to truck traffic hours and plans for wildlife-safe dumpsters.
Since Peak Materials owns the 75-acre property in question for the permit, it’s unclear what the company’s next steps are. Joanna Hopkins, a representative for Peak Materials said after the hearing the company is reviewing all options at this time.
Following the board’s decision, Knopf said in a text message that Friends of the Lower Blue River would be happy to facilitate a meeting with Peak Materials and a group of Blue River Valley stakeholders interested in purchasing the property from the company.