Residents concerned with groundwater contamination from waste disposed by King II coal mine have prompted state officials to test for potentially volatile compounds such as lead and mercury.
Since 2007, King II, operated by Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua Energy, has been dumping its mining waste at the operation’s previous site, King I, further east on County Road 120 in Hesperus.
Under the mine’s permit with the state, compounds such as lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium have never been tested at the waste site – a surface impoundment exposed to the elements.
However, when King II disclosed in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) that nearly 750 pounds of toxic material was added to the waste pile in 2014, residents in Hay Gulch grew concerned about the potential impacts to the water table.
“It could be very, very leachable,” said Gary Grantham, who has lived along County Road 120 since 1998. “Anyone down from the mine could definitely be affected. In fact, we already know there are wells in that part of the county that have heavy-metal contamination, but we just don’t know if it’s from the mine. Until we have a better understanding of what’s being disposed of, it’s hard to know what’s going on.”
That day appears to be coming soon. Grantham and several of his neighbors asked the Division of Reclamation Mining & Safety for additional monitoring of King II’s disposal site, and the agency agreed.
“We received some concerns over the last several months,” said Daniel Hernandez, a senior environmental protection specialist. “We took a look at those concerns and said, ‘Yeah, we need to take a look at that.’”
Hernandez said the agency is likely to include testing for a wider range of compounds in a revised permit with King II by March 31, a process that would include a public comment period. Testing could begin as soon as April, he said.
“It’s over and above what we’ve done in the past,” Hernandez said.
Residents caught on to the fact King II was disposing lead and mercury because of a slip-up on the coal mine operator’s part, according to GCC Energy Vice President Trent Peterson.
“All coal extraction and beneficiation activities performed at the King II mine are exempt from the TRI program. … because of this, GCCE has never reported any toxic releases until 2014,” Peterson wrote in an email. “The 2014 TRI reports … were submitted due to an error on the applicability determination. GCCE plans to withdraw the previously submitted 2014 TRI reports.”
The EPA report shows King II disposed of 742 pounds of lead and 5 pounds of mercury in 2014. Peterson added the “mercury content was incorrectly reported in the TRI report and should have been 0.00527 pounds instead of 5 pounds.”
Regardless, the fact King II was not required to report its production-related waste to either state or federal agencies in previous years has community members disturbed. “It’s scary to me they don’t have to report,” said Cynthia Roebuck, executive director of SWCO Advocates. “It makes me wonder what else is being deposited there besides what accidentally got reported this year.”
Hernandez said King II is in compliance with its permit. The state agency first approved the dump site at King I in 1991. He said based on available information, the depth to the groundwater below the refuse disposal area at King I is about 250 feet to 300 feet.
“To date, we know of no adverse impacts to groundwater,” he said.