DENVER (CN) - Conservationists accuse the U.S. Forest Service of sweeping problems with the Keystone Mine's water treatment plant - meant to filter toxic, metal-laden water from the mine - "under the rug."
The High Country Conservation Advocates, a nonprofit focused on the conservation of public lands, sued the Forest Service Monday in Denver Federal Court over the security of a water treatment plant outside of Crested Butte, Colorado.
They claim that the plant, which is supposed to sanitize the water that drains out of the Keystone Mine and into the streams that flow through Gunnison Valley, does not have an approved plan of action or a financial bond to ensure the plant can continue running without problems.
Because the mine is owned by national corporation U.S. Energy, the nonprofit says the stability of the water treatment plant is not protected should the company face unexpected financial obstacles.
The plant, which sits along the side of Mt. Emmons, filters over 350 gallons of water per minute to protect the local Coal Creek from Keystone's toxic drainage. The mine has been plugged deep inside the mountain to keep the water outflow contained enough to be treated by the facility before the runoff is allowed into Coal Creek.
Drainage from the mine costs $2 million per year to filter and clean. But after the catastrophic leak from the Gold King Mine, High Country Conservation says water treatment plants have to meet every standard despite the price tag - and the plant outside Keystone still falls short.
"The Forest Service can't continue to sweep this pressing issue under the rug at the risk of our communities' water quality," High Country Conservation public lands director Alli Melton said in a statement. "We have been raising this issue with the agency for years now because without a bond, it's an accident waiting to happen. This toxic acid mine drainage occurs just a few miles above town and if untreated water enters Coal Creek, it would flow through the heart of Crested Butte and down towards Gunnison, threatening the public's health and our thriving local economy.
"It's time the Forest Service does what's in the public interest and what it's required to do. Our water, health, community, and vibrant local economy need protection from this looming threat to our water."
U.S. Energy initially defended their mine, saying its original plan of action - written in 1979 - was still active. But Gunnison District Ranger John Murphy, a defendant in the case, found the plan was too outdated to be valid in 2012 and required the company to submit a new plan.
As U.S. Energy did submit a new plan later that year, Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams - also a defendant - determined the updates solved the problem.
But High Country, which is represented by Lyons attorney Roger Flynn, remains concerned about the area in the Gunnison Valley - home to approximately 7,000 people - as the new plan still lacks the necessary bonds to protect against financial problems including contract defaults and other unpredictable fiscal issues that would leave Crested Butte and Gunnison vulnerable if the company suddenly stopped the mine's use and upkeep.
U.S. Energy is not a party to the case.
"Although the agency and the company may argue that U.S. Energy intends to continue to operate the plant," Melton said, "the company's current financial situation and recent events in Colorado show that such promises ring hollow and clearly do not protect the public."
The Forest Service did not respond to requests for comment.