Opinion by John Armstrong
Public access to the Yule Creek Marble Quarry has been restored … in a small way. Early January was an odd time of year to open several hundred yards of a snowed-in, uphill road to pedestrian access. Colorado Stone Quarry (CSQ) was overdue in providing the short pedestrian route which provides the visitor a view into the lower reaches of the marble quarry. Restored public access was a requirement by the Gunnison County Commissioners for CSQ’s 2016 permit expansion. The 2016 permit granted CSQ an increased envelope of exploitation from 11 to 124 acres.
CSQ has now applied for a retroactive permit to relocate Yule Creek. The creek flows through the middle of the quarry operation. CSQ moved the creek to the opposite side of the valley and buried the original creek in 97,000 yards of marble overburden. During the public comment period for the quarry permit, which ended in December, Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck admonished the quarry for their failure to comply with the public access requirement.
The public is encouraged to drive three miles to the end of the quarry road, County Road 3C, and snowshoe or ski up the short pedestrian access. A good four-wheel drive vehicle is necessary. The short trail is well marked and parking is ample. Viewing the fabulous alpine valley and the mining project are worth the trip. More public viewing access is included in the county land use permit.
Public access was arguably consistent throughout the twentieth century. “Old timers” remember unchallenged public access until the late 1990s. At that time, a new property owner (unrelated to any quarry operation) restricted public access and demanded a fee for passage on the historic route. Marblelians, locals, tourists, and the Gunnison County Commissioners rebelled. Two separate court decisions sided with Gunnison County and the public’s historic access. In a shocking reversal in 2004, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the private landowner, ending almost a century of public access.
At approximately the same time, the owner of the quarry terminated the popular guided tours of the historic Yule Marble Quarry. From that time on, extraction activities in upper Yule Valley were not privy to the public eye. For over a decade the Yule Creek environment suffered from a lack of oversight and protection.
The period for public comment on the CSQ permit to move the creek that they have already moved is over. A unified request for a public hearing by citizen groups including Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA), and Gunnison and Pitkin Counties, was denied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps). These parties requested significant compensatory mitigation be required of CSQ by the Corps. This basically amounts to restoration work meant to counterbalance the environmental damage done by CSQ’s unpermitted relocation of the creek. The Corps will not share CSQ’s proposal for mitigation with the public nor offer the concerned groups an opportunity to comment on such a proposal. All of this lack of transparency is unacceptable to CVEPA and our other vested partners.
In our most recent conversation with the Corps, we learned that they have given CSQ 30 days to submit their proposal for compensatory mitigation. CSQ is bidding for more time and still has no proposal to offer the Corps. CSQ argues that they need time without snow on the ground to formulate a comprehensive proposal. The Corps counters that CSQ has had since May of 2020 to work on the compensation they knew they must perform. To postpone detailing the mitigation proposal until snowmelt will lead to another year of delays. The Corps says this is unacceptable.
CVEPA’s legal counsel petitioned the Corps for a copy of the Notice of Violation for CSQ’s unpermitted relocation of Yule Creek. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) had to be filed in order to obtain this information. The March 5, 2020 Notice of Violation states that CSQ’s work “is in violation of the Clean Water Act.” Further, the Corps wrote, “Potential enforcement actions include directing removal of the unauthorized work and restoration of the site to pre-project conditions.” Unless the Corps demands that the creek be returned to its original (now deeply buried) channel, there is not likely to be one large mitigation project meaningful enough to fulfill CSQ’s obligation. This could mean numerous lesser projects to correct or improve the environment at the quarry or in the immediate watershed. CVEPA has proposed a list of projects in the Crystal Valley that we feel would benefit water quality, wildlife habitat and quality of life for valley residents.
The Corps has asked CVEPA for ideas for mitigation. While CVEPA appreciates the Corps soliciting our input, we feel that the onus is on the Corps to conduct an environmental assessment, at the expense of CSQ, to make educated and calculated decisions going forward. This recommendation was turned down during the permit comment period.
CVEPA will obtain CSQ’s proposal for compensatory mitigation through a FOIA process.
The Corps has said that it is “in the public interest to issue the permit.” CVEPA believes that the people’s best interest is served through a transparent process in which we know what is being served and why.
CVEPA is the only organization devoted solely to protecting the Crystal Valley. We have been your environmental watchdog for 49 years. To learn more about CVEPA and our mission please visit our website cvepa.org and join our cause.