MARBLE — An October spill of 5,500 gallons of diesel fuel that has shut down Marble’s famed Yule quarry for nearly two months took more than four days to report to state authorities and more than two weeks before substantial cleanup efforts began.
The delays are outlined in a spill report submitted to the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, or DRMS, by Greg Lewicki and Associates, a consultant for the quarry operator, Delta-based Colorado Stone Quarries. The spill occurred overnight Oct. 11 but was not reported to state regulators until Oct. 16. Production, which shut down Oct. 16, is expected to resume Thursday or Friday, Colorado Stone Quarries spokesperson Lisa Sigler said.
According to Russ Means, minerals program director for DRMS, mine operators are required to notify the agency of a spill within 48 hours.
“We acknowledge there were several days between when the accident occurred and when it was reported to regulators,” CSQ general manager Daniele Treves said in a prepared statement. “Our focus at the time was minimizing any environmental impacts of the fuel release and taking steps to make sure the fuel did not reach the creek. … We are fully reviewing the reasons for the delay and our environmental processes, including our past and current reporting procedures.”
DRMS officials decided the spill rose to the level of a violation of CSQ’s mine plan because the fuel tanks did not have the required secondary containment structure to catch the leak. CSQ is scheduled to appear before the DRMS seven-member board in Denver on Jan. 22.
The board could fine the mine operators, in addition to requiring they take corrective actions to fix the problem.
“They didn’t follow their own protocols,” Means said. “We had reason to believe a violation exists.”
How the spill occurred
According to the report, diesel fuel used to power the mine’s generators is stored in a 12,000-gallon, above-ground tank, which is used to fill a 100-gallon tank for day use. The spill was the result of accidental overfilling of the day tank.
Normally, if the day tank is accidentally overfilled, the fuel flows back into the larger tank through a return-flow system. But on Oct. 11, the power switch was flipped from the 480V position to the 240V position, causing the system to malfunction and resulting in the day tank being overfilled overnight. Fuel flowed out of a faulty pressure release cap and onto the ground.
Crews who first noticed the spill Oct. 12 initially thought it was minor and didn’t realize that 5,500 gallons of diesel was missing from the bulk tank until Oct. 14. The mining company reported the spill to state authorities Oct. 16, at which point all production stopped at the quarry, and workers’ efforts shifted to focus solely on cleanup.
In the prepared statement released by CSQ, Treves said the mine takes environmental protection seriously.
“We are continuing an internal investigation of what went wrong, and how we can work to prevent it from happening in the future,” Treves said.
The report also details what happened in the span of nearly two weeks between when the spill was reported and Oct. 29, when mitigation efforts began in earnest. CSQ, the company’s consultant Greg Lewicki and Associates and environmental cleanup company Clean Harbors came up with a plan. First, they would remove contaminated soil and truck it to South Canyon Landfill in Glenwood Springs, then flush large amounts of water through the ground to dilute the remaining fuel, collect the contaminated water in a sump below the spill and pump it into a tanker to be hauled away to Greenleaf Environmental Services in DeBeque.
But the plan immediately ran into problems with the pumps, which were not able to pump at the required pressure. They were replaced by pumps from Rifle-based Rain for Rent, but these, too, malfunctioned and had to be replaced or repaired over the next several days. During this time, quarry officials concluded that Clean Harbors would not be able to manage and complete the cleanup and they hired Grand Junction-based HRL Compliance Solutions instead.
On Oct. 29, quarry officials decided flushing needed to begin whether or not they had a backup pump on the site. When more water than expected seeped into the sump, officials called for additional water tankers and trucks, including a 20,000-gallon frac tank, to manage the overflow. Workers put in a 25-hour shift to deal with the high volume of contaminated water.
CSQ said the delays are explained by waiting for agency approvals, complications in getting the pumps online due to freezing temperatures and steep terrain, waiting for equipment to be delivered and authorization of the facility accepting the contaminated water.
The two-week delay in beginning the cleanup did not violate state regulations, Means said.
“We were aware of the situation and monitoring it,” Means said. “While we had concerns, it didn’t amount to any violations.”
Yule Creek spared
According to the spill report, “No diesel appears to have left the site and the full spill appears to be contained within the road fill material” and “No detectable amounts of diesel entered Yule Creek.” Even so, the remediation plan laid out by HRL Compliance Solutions calls for ongoing monitoring with groundwater wells and continued water sampling. Also, the company will treat the affected soil with Microblaze, a bioremediation product that uses bacteria to break down the petroleum hydrocarbons found in diesel fuel.
The reason Yule Creek may have been spared from the spill is because it has been diverted from its natural channel to allow for expansion of the quarry. In 2016, DRMS approved additional acreage and the creek diversion so that a new section of the quarry and access road could be built. With the creek in a new channel on the east side of Franklin Ridge, the ridge now separates the spill from the creek. According to the report, “The ridge is composed of marble and is for the most part impermeable, creating a barrier between the spill and the creek.”
Carbondale resident and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association president John Armstrong filed a complaint about the quarry with DRMS in late October. It wasn’t about the spill — he wasn’t aware it happened — but about large blocks of marble he saw clogging the original and now-dry streambed of Yule Creek.
“The relocation of the creek really surprised me,” he said, “and I’m really concerned about that.”
The Yule quarry — out of whose white stone has been carved the Lincoln Memorial, the Colorado Capitol building, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and many other buildings and monuments — has long been a point of pride in the history of the tiny, eponymous town of Marble. Perched above the town at around 9,000 feet and 3 miles up County Road 3C, marble was first discovered here in 1873. Flatbed trucks carrying slabs of fresh-cut stone still rumble down the highway here long after other nearby mining settlements became ghost towns.
Red Graniti, a company from Cararra, Italy, now owns the quarry, which employs about 30 to 40 people. Renamed The Pride of America Mine, with galleries named after U.S. presidents and founding fathers — Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, Washington, Adams, Hamilton — the quarry was granted a permit in 2016 for a 114-acre expansion for a total of 124 permitted acres.
Some worry this expansion could have unintended consequences, including, perhaps, October’s diesel spill.
“CVEPA is not out to vilify the marble quarry, but we have also seen the private sector left to its own devices does not adhere to the highest environmental standards,” Armstrong said. “(The quarry expansion) is big. And for that little valley, we don’t know what it means.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Dec. 12 edition of The Aspen Times.