|Emery Commissioner Ira Hatch discusses his concern about the water situation at Skyline mine with Sanpete officials Claudia Jarrett and Greg Dettinger. The situation was the main topic at a tri-county commission meeting at the Carbon courthouse last Wednesday. Commissioners from Carbon County joined the Emery and Sanpete officials to discuss the mine, Electric Lake and a recent memo regarding the situation from the Utah Division of Gas, Oil and Mining.|
Slated at College of Eastern Utah, the Utah Association of Counties meeting was the perfect time for Carbon, Emery and Sanpete commissioners to continue discussing the aquifer under Skyline, Electric Lake status and the operations at the mine.
A new memo from the Utah Department of Natural Resources recommends additional monitoring of the water that has been found in the Scofield area. The issue popped up at the meeting, adding new light and complications to the subject.
"This new report suggests that the mine and Pacificorp work together on this problem," Carbon County Commissioner Mike Milovich told the seven other assembled commissioners in the meeting on Wednesday afternoon. "The question is if we want to sit on the situation and see what they plan to do."
The question as to what to do has resulted from activity in the mine in the summer of 2000 in which miners hit a pocket of water which started spewing 8-12,000 gallons of water into the mine per minute.
When the water first started to pour into the Skyline Mine, the mining operation had to shut down for almost a month to install pumps and get the operation dried out.
Officials have conducted testing of that water over the last year and a half and the results have shown little surface contamination, more specifically the isotope tritium which has been measured in all surface water on the planet since the atomic bomb tests of the 1940s.
For all intents and purposes that means the water is ancient and has been estimated to be thousands of years old.
However, these tests have been disputed by some officials. Since it was discovered that Electric Lake, which was located above where the water was discovered in the mine, is losing between 4, 000 to 5,000 gallons of water per minute due to a fissure in the bottom of the lake, many residents and county officials have assumed that is where the water is going.
The concern however, is not only about water rights, but about the fact that the water flowing out of Electric Lake is that much less for the Huntington Power Plant to use to generate steam.
Another concern is that Utah is entering the fourth year of a major drought.
Last fall, the three counties got together and applied for an emergency grant to do some testing on the water and they received nearly a half million dollars to do so. At this point however, nothing has been done with that money.
The new memo spelled out a number of moves that the state feels the mine and the power company should make.
First of all the memo, which was constructed by three Department of Oil, Mining and Gas hydrologists, states that the water from the Star Point Sandstone formations below the coal seams located there could very well be getting their recharge from a surface body of water, namely Electric Lake.
According to those at the meeting, some sources claim that tritium testing at the present pumping stations have risen slightly, but not enough to prove the water is coming from the surface body of water.
"There's apparently a combination of ancient and surface water hitting the aquifer," stated Milovich. "There is a recharge source somewhere. However, indications are that the vast majority of the water is ancient."
However, where the water is coming from is only one concern. The water that is coming into the mine is costing Skyline.
According to officials, the company is spending huge amounts of money to pump out their facility. This puts Skyline at a competitive disadvantage to other coal mining operations because they have to pay for that pumping within the cost of their coal.
Beyond the present problem, long term plans for the mine mean a move into coal seams in Flat Canyon, where the water is the biggest problem of all.
"At this point, I understand that they are mining in an area where this water has no bearing," said Emery County Commissioner Ira Hatch. "But in seven to eight years it could be a real problem."
However, one of the other Emery commissioners said that he had recently talked with someone from mine supervision and they told him that if the problem isn't figured out, the mine could close as early as next year, largely because of the costs they are incurring because of the water pumping project.
Apparently, mining any of the facility would be impossible without some water control and right now it is estimated that the mine is expending a million dollars a month just to keep the facility dry.
"Reports are that if the pumping were stopped or dams couldn't be approved, the water would fill within 22 feet of the Eccles Canyon portal," said Milovich.
An option for the mine to continue working on the Winter Quarters/ North Lease area could be to do some interior damming, but it appears that could be hard to get approval for, particularly after what happened last year to the nine miners near Somerset, Pa. who were trapped for three days by water that came into the mine.
According to the memo, the current mining and reclamation plan (MRP) does not include any official groundwater monitoring which could show the influence of Electric Lake on the inflow. However, the division has now included the lake in the cumulative impact area and has made some recommendations about the testing, based on the present circumstances and that the division has the right and responsibility to do so.
The division estimates that four monitoring wells would be needed for the proper testing. It is recommended that the wells be put in place as soon as it is reasonable and suggests that even though the water is in Skyline Mine and is their responsibility, that Pacificorp should pay for some of the expense, because it benefits them too.
The particulars of exactly how many wells would be needed, their location and the geologic formation in which they are located would have to be decided by hydrologists from DOGM, Pacificorp and the Skyline Mine.
The wells should be drilled as soon as it is possible to get equipment into the area to do so after the winter snow and sites have been selected.
The memo goes on to spell out the advantages to both Skyline and Pacificorp, but admits that the largest burden of the cost would lie with the mine.
The test wells data would be used to further understand the interaction of the lake and the mine together in the underground water scheme.
The commissioners agreed that with this new memo, they will have to change their ideas on several things including how to use the grant study money.
"At this point I think we should take a wait and see attitude until we can meet with the involved parties," advised Hatch.
Most agreed too that more important than water rights at this point, is the possibility of the mine shutting down and an important employee base for all three counties literally disappearing.
"Water rights are secondary to losing employment and all the support industries that go along with it," stated Milovich. "We need to keep the mine viable."
The group discussed the possibility of helping with the well costs, even though no one knows at present what those may be.
"I am concerned about the grant money, how we can use it and if we do have to use it past this year, what it will take to modify that use," said Commissioner Claudia Jarrett from Sanpete County.
The group agreed to explore options and to arrange a meeting with all involved parties sometime in May in Sanpete County.