It is costing taxpayers about $1.3 million to mitigate weakened rocks and install fencing along Interstate 70 in the same De Beque Canyon area where a Mesa County resident who owns property high above is accused of releasing large amounts of water on his dry rock quarry, Colorado Department of Transportation officials said Tuesday.
Last month, CDOT, through the Colorado Attorney General's Office, and the state's Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety issued two separate cease-and-desist orders against Rudy Fontanari, who owns multiple parcels in De Beque Canyon on the south side of I-70 near the Cameo exit.
The orders said Fontanari was endangering businesses and motorists on I-70, and demanded that he stop releasing irrigation water onto his property where he operates a basalt stone business called Western Slope Flagstone Quarry No. 2, a business he's operated since 1995. His state permit for that quarry bars him from using water.
State inspectors last month discovered that he allegedly was filling at least one pit there, causing water to come down the side of the canyon wall. That resulted in rocks falling onto the highway far below.
Fontanari is to appear before the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board later this month to answer why he should keep his permit. He faces fines of up to $5,000 a day, which could end up being as high as $205,000, division officials say.
For the past few weeks, CDOT crews have been busy blasting and pulling down tons of loose rocks, closing a lane on the eastbound side of the highway, and occasionally the entire interstate at times.
That work is complete for now, but crews still are installing a fence to capture any future rockslides, said CDOT spokesman Matthew Inzeo.
"We're done with mitigation work for now (but) if conditions change, we would obviously do more on mitigation," Inzeo said in an email. "The work happening now is to install a platform for the permanent rock fence."
Inzeo said the department hasn't yet made a determination if it will seek compensation from Fontanari on mitigation costs. The cease-and-desist order recommended that Fontanari alert his insurance company, hinting that it might seek reimbursement for costs to the state. Fontanari, who owns nine parcels of land on the south side of the canyon totaling about 440 acres, has said most of the water that ended up on his property was from runoff, while other water had been collecting in a collapsed old coal mine. He said he has a farming operation up there, growing "native grass, oats and pasture grass, and wild flowers for feed for wildlife."
Mine reclamation inspectors have been checking his property daily to ensure more watering isn't occurring.
The Colorado Division of Water Resources also is investigating whether Fontanari has been purposely wasting water in violation of state beneficial use water laws, which could impact his water rights.