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On snowy days, it takes a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to Bob Allen's log house off the steep and winding Spruce Canyon Drive. But the same powder that's such a pain in the winter is welcome come spring when the snowmelt seeps through the soil and enters fractures in the wells that supply the 110 homes in Crescent Park.
But the people who live in this mountain subdivision are wondering if blasting for a proposed gravel mine a couple of thousand feet away could reduce the groundwater level and leave their wells dry. "Pulling all this earth out of the ground is like pulling a stopper out of a bathtub," says Crescent Park resident Chris Wood.
Wood, Allen and the members of four neighborhood groups have banded together to form the Coal Creek Canyon Homeowners Association; together they've been fighting Asphalt Paving Company since last May, when they found out about the potential mine. The Golden-based company owns 1,061 acres in the area north of Coal Creek Canyon and west of Highway 93, 163 acres of which is set aside for the quarry. The company promises to preserve the remaining 898 acres as open space during the sixty to seventy years the mine is active.
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The land is currently zoned as an agricultural area where homes and light commercial uses are allowed -- to begin mining gravel, Asphalt Paving Company must first convince Jefferson County's three commissioners to designate the area as a planned development/mining zone.
Nearby residents are convinced that the commissioners already have their minds made up and that the county is speeding the process along (the county could vote on the zoning-change request as soon as October 19, the date of the last public hearing). Some quarry opponents point to the fact that all three commissioners have accepted campaign contributions from developers and realtors as evidence that they are development-friendly.
Asphalt Paving donated $1,000 to Commissioner Michelle Lawrence's 1996 campaign. Lawrence was out of town and unavailable for comment, but Commissioner Rick Sheehan, who didn't receive anything from the company, says, "It's unfair to suggest that an elected official is biased by the receipt of a campaign contribution. The dollar amount is so small that I doubt anyone's ethics can be bought for that price. And it's interesting that they should say we're rushing this through, especially since we've asked the staff to do more analysis."
The third commissioner, Patricia Holloway, also received nothing from Asphalt Paving.
But residents say Asphalt Paving hasn't conducted adequate studies regarding the impact the quarry will have on noise, pollution, rock falls and wells. In 1981, Boulder-based Flatiron Sand and Gravel Company wanted to mine the same area; when their application made its way to the county commissioners in 1983, the zoning-change request was denied because of unanswered questions about the effects on air quality, water quantity and noise. When Asphalt Paving bought the land from Flatiron Sand and Gravel in 1991, it acquired the old studies. "They just took old reports from 1982 and put a new cover on them," says Allen, a hydraulic engineer. "There's more open space now and more houses. It's seventeen years later; they need to do all new studies."
In a February groundwater report commissioned by the county's planning and zoning department, engineer Eileen Poeter found that Asphalt Paving's hydrology study "does not provide the necessary analysis to evaluate the impact of the proposed quarry...The cost of potential failure must be balanced against the benefits of the mining activity. In this case, we can define failure as drawdown large enough that some residents lose their domestic water supply. The local residents bear the greatest risk of failure, while the applicant and county enjoy the greatest benefits. I recommend collection of field data followed by a robust geohydrologic study with rigorous calculation of confidence intervals."
"Whether the analysis is sufficient is one of the questions that needs to be answered," says Sheehan. "I'm not certain the reports are adequate; I need to look at them more. The [county] staff has recommended that we deny the application because noise issues haven't been adequately addressed. I haven't made a decision yet."
Jeff Keller, president of Asphalt Paving, stands behind the studies. Although he acknowledges that he used many of the studies from the 1980s, he's hired experts to confirm that they are still valid, and in many cases, he's had the studies completely redone. But he says the passage of time does not affect the validity of the groundwater study. He is so confident that the residents' wells won't dry up as a result of his quarry that he has agreed to put $1 million in a trust fund to pay for water service.
"In the unlikely event that they go dry, we'll put a cistern up there and haul water to it, or we'll pay to drill the wells deeper," he says, adding that a board of trustees made up of residents from the surrounding subdivisions and an Asphalt Paving representative will oversee the use of the money. He also has agreed to foot the cost of regularly monitoring residents' wells to make sure their water levels remain sufficient.
But the residents worry that without independent wells supplying their water, their property values will decrease. They don't like the idea of an unsightly cistern in their neighborhood and the trucks that would have to drive up their quiet mountain road to deliver water. "What they should be doing is moving their boundaries or agreeing not to dig as deep. Instead, they're planning to fix the problem on our property," Allen says. "With this trust fund, they're just throwing money at the problem when they should find a way to fix it."
"If that mine existed already and then we moved up there, we'd have to deal with it. Maybe then a trust fund would be an appropriate way to handle it, but we live in a residential neighborhood, and according to state law, when someone requests a zoning change, it has to be compatible with existing zoning," adds Wood.
Another concern that has resulted from the quarry proposal is its impact on hikers and bikers at Eldorado Canyon State Park, the two main parts of which are located in Boulder County, northeast and northwest of the mining site. Even more worrisome to park users is the proximity of two other parcels of the state park. A couple of years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management transferred two isolated pieces of property totaling approximately 280 acres to the state; the two parcels run up against the proposed quarry area.
Members of Citizens for Eldorado Canyon, a group that formed to oppose the quarry, say that if trails are ever built on those lands, park users will be disturbed by the mining activity next door. But Marcia Simmons, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, says the land is intended to serve as a buffer zone between the mine and neighboring Boulder County open space. "There is the potential for the land to become part of a long-distance trail system someday, but that is just a possibility," Simmons says.
Eric Johnson, a founding member of the citizen group -- which has a 400-person mailing list that includes Flagstaff Mountain residents who claim they'll be able to see the quarry from their homes -- says people in Boulder County haven't been treated as stakeholders in the quarry discussions. "We have stressed repeatedly that air quality in our area needs to be tested now as a benchmark so that we know how it will change once the mine is built. But [Asphalt Paving] has neglected to do air testing in Boulder County. They also haven't addressed the noise and pollution impacts to the state park," Johnson says. "People have accused us of being NIMBYs [an acronym for Not in My Backyard], but I don't care. The state park is everyone's backyard, and we believe that that part of the park will be completely ruined for any future public use."
The more troubling issue for neighbors is the possibility that gravel trucks could someday rumble by their homes. Asphalt Paving's application has been dubbed the "Rail-Line Quarry" because the company says it intends to use nearby rail lines owned by Union Pacific; if gravel can be hauled away by train, gravel trucks won't have to drive through residential streets and along the two-lane highway that winds through the canyon.
"By pitching this on the basis of rail haul, it makes the quarry a lot more attractive to the commissioners. I think they're just using the railroad to get their foot in the door and that sometime down the road they'll use trucks. No one wants trucks hauling gravel in Coal Creek Canyon," Allen says, adding that residents have yet to see any evidence that Asphalt Paving has permission to use the tracks.
The reason they haven't seen it is because Keller hasn't shown it to them -- yet.
In fact, Union Pacific gave Keller preliminary approval last year, but he hasn't shared it with the public because he didn't want to jeopardize negotiations with the rail company.
But now he says he wants to allay residents' fears about gravel trucks once and for all. The June 2, 1998, letter reads, in part: "The Union Pacific agrees with your initial concept subject to engineering operating approvals. Once you have received your permits and are ready to proceed with your project, please submit your engineered track plans."
Even if the county agrees to rezone his property, Keller estimates it will be six to ten years before he'll be able to begin blasting. He must still get a building permit from Jefferson County, as well as permits from the state health department, the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
However, Keller's plans will backfire if Union Pacific decides not to grant Asphalt Paving the use of its tracks. Keller says he's taken care of residents' concerns about truck hauling with a clause in his official development plan -- a document to which he will be legally forced to adhere -- that states that if he is unable to haul gravel by train, the land will not be developed. In fact, the county won't even issue his building permit until he submits proof of a contract with Union Pacific.
Because the only access to the proposed mining site is via four-wheel-drive-vehicle trails, Asphalt Paving would have to build new roads to haul gravel by truck -- a venture Keller says is too expensive.
"The Flatiron Company never would agree 100 percent to rail haul," he says. "Their plan said they would use rail haul, but when they were asked by the county commissioners what would happen if they couldn't use the tracks, they said they'd have to come back and talk to them at that point. I think that was flawed. Since the very beginning of this, we've said the gravel only goes by rail or it doesn't go at all."
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