Skull Creek may be site of new open pit mine

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Skull Creek is east of Dinosaur and west of Massadona, about 17 miles from the Colorado-Utah border. Residents are concerned about impacts from a proposed frac sand pit mine, including truck traffic, noise pollution, water quality and quantity, and proximity to uranium deposits.
NIKI TURNER PHOTO

DINOSAUR | Homeowners in a rugged and remote part of northwest Colorado will have to wait until September to find out if a proposed open pit mine is coming to their neighborhood.

The Skull Creek “subdivision” — east of Dinosaur and slightly west of Massadona, about 17 miles from the Colorado-Utah border — can only be described as a traditional subdivision on a map. There are no cul-de-sacs or cookie-cutter houses, and the closest thing to a neighborhood watch program is a sign at the edge of one property that reads “Never Mind the Dog, Beware of Owner!” with a pistol graphic. 

The beginning of the “Old Mine Road,” aka Moffat County Rd. 95, alerts drivers to the need for  a high clearance vehicle and says to expect the road to be impassable during certain seasons. What feels like a mild 4×4 road follows Skull Creek, which trickles along the bottom of a deep ravine. Rock formations rise on either side of the valley, known as the Skull Creek Quadrangle. Homes tucked into this remote region are mostly hidden from view and well-dispersed, and that’s the way they like it, according to homeowner Lori Lazarus.

“The people who have property here bought it for the peace and quiet,” Lazarus said. She is one of several property owners who have opposed the application for the open pit mine. 

The Proposed Mine

Uinta Mining LLC, filed an “application for construction” permit with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety in October 2019. Connected to Alton Coal, from Utah, Uinta Mining filed with the Colorado Secretary of State as a foreign limited liability company with jurisdiction in Nevada and a Naples, Florida address in November 2019. The company has leased the Skull Creek property from the Frances Barnett Lewis Trust. The property was previously leased to ranchers for cattle grazing. The HT was unable to reach the Trust by phone before press time. 

Open pit mining differs slightly from strip mining. “Strip mining is the process of mining a seam of mineral by removing a long strip of overlying soil and rock. Strip mining is a practical type of mining when the ore body that is to be extracted is near the surface. Open-pit mining is the process of extracting rock or minerals from the earth through their removal from an open pit or borrow.” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/open-pit-mining)

According to Larry Johnson, who describes himself as a consultant on the project, of the 480 acres in the permit area, only 144 would be affected, and reclamation would take place concurrently. “It’s not leaving a big hole, it would be continually reclaimed.” According to permit documents, the project could produce 1.25 million tons per year.

What is Frac Sand?

According to a United States Geological Survey publication from 2015, frac sand was in high demand in areas with “unconventional” petroleum basins. The sand is used as a “proppant” to hold open created fractures and allow more natural gas to be extracted. “The physical properties of frac sand, as defined by the American Petroleum Institute (API), are quite specific … optimal frac sand is a naturally occurring, unconsolidated silica sand or friable sandstone that has a nearly pure quartz composition, crush-resistant grains, high sphericity/roundness of grains, and a uniformly medium- to coarse-grain size. Additional factors that influence the economics of mining are the deposit’s real extent and thickness, textural uniformity, accessibility at or near the surface, nearness to trucking and rail transportation routes, and proximity to the active unconventional petroleum basins.” (https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2015/1107/pdf/ofr20151107.pdf)

Jobs and Economic Impact

Johnson said they anticipate the generation of 40-50 full-time jobs and expect mining on this particular permit to last 3-5 years. When this site is depleted, they plan to move operations to private property and then federal property to the west, depending on the demand for the product. Material taken from the mine would go to a processing plant in Roosevelt, Utah, creating about 10 additional jobs. 

“It depends on when the oil business comes back,” Johnson said. 

Homeowners’ Concerns

The Skull Creek area isn’t new to mining, hence the “Old Mine Road” moniker. A copper mine and at least one uranium mine are mapped in the area. The idea of an open pit mine in the area is objectionable to Lazarus, who has lived in the area for eight years. 

Lazarus is concerned about heavy truck traffic, noise pollution, the proximity to known uranium deposits as well as concerns about water quality and quantity. An aquifer supplies residents with water; Lazarus says that aquifer is already at risk during drought conditions. 

The application permit indicates the company would use the water rights from a well permit that taps into that aquifer as well as pond water from the Frances Barnett Lewis property for dust control and at the mining location, with a need of about 12,000 gallons per week, and states, “The aquifer is well below the proposed mining operations making a barrier between the aquifer and final depth of mining.”

“They’d run out [of water] in a week,” Lazarus said. Water rights for the well permit are 15 gallons per minute, or 1 acre foot per year. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has also weighed in on the proposal, citing the prevalence of multiple wildlife species and migratory birds, and recommending that between Dec. 1 and April 15, Uinta Mining will limit their activities to the hours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The board of the Colorado Division of Mining, Reclamation and Safety is expected to make a decision on the application at its Sept. 23 meeting. If it’s approved, the timeline for the project to get underway is still undetermined. 


By NIKI TURNER | editor@ht1885.com