Coal company agrees to fine over water-quality violations

The owner of a Somerset coal mine has agreed to pay a $16,805 fine as part of a settlement with the state regarding violations of water pollution laws.

The fine is part of a consent order executed between the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division and Mountain Coal Co., owner of the West Elk Mine.

According to the settlement, the mine exceeded pollution limits several times between 2005 and 2008. Iron and levels of suspended solids were among areas above state standards.

The company also failed several tests of overall toxicity of its water discharges to aquatic life, but all but one failure turned out to result from improper testing protocols.

The agreement says Mountain Coal also failed to provide timely, accurate and/or complete discharge monitoring reports, didn’t submit required stormwater management plan annual reports from 2005 to 2007 and didn’t comply with requirements for a materials containment plan.

It also failed to meet a mandated schedule for laying out a plan for complying with iron pollution limits, providing a progress report and showing compliance had been achieved.

Some of the problems came to light under a voluntary self-evaluation and reporting process by the company, meaning it is immune to penalties for the violations under the state law.

However, state regulators determined other violations weren’t voluntarily disclosed and thus could result in fines.

The agreement is subject to a 30-day public comment period.

State health department officials weren’t available for immediate comment Tuesday afternoon.

The agreement says Mountain Coal Co. makes no admission of fault or to the state’s factual determinations. However, company spokesperson Kim Link said in a written statement Tuesday, “We take full responsibility for the compliance issues that were identified during a voluntary self-evaluation at Mountain Coal Company. Since the time of our finding, we’ve developed and implemented a Compliance Management System and made improvements to the treatment system to assure compliance reporting in the future.”

“This definitely doesn’t speak well to their record,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate energy program director for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. Nichols has been pushing for West Elk Mine to capture methane vented during mining but said he hadn’t heard of the water-quality concerns identified by the state until the agreement was announced.

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