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Houses and the Denver skyline are pictured beyond the Rocky Flats Environmental Solutions facility in Arvada on Aug. 2, 2022. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado officials have shut down what they call an illegal mining and milling operation south of Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge and above Jefferson County communities, saying uncontained chemicals like cyanide for gold processing are a hazard to the public and environment. 

Rocky Flats Environmental Solutions, which says it is not a mining operation but a testing and cleanup site for other mine operators, is shut down under a state cease-and-desist order until the mining reclamation board takes up the case later this month, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris Arend said. 

The Mined Land Reclamation Board and its inspectors are working with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment water quality experts and other agencies to protect local community watersheds, Arend said. 

In a 22-page inspection noting multiple alleged violations, state inspectors list tanks with thousands of gallons of cyanide solution sitting above a concrete berm that could not enclose potential spills. The owners of the facility use a proprietary chemical method for leaching precious metals from ore and used electronics. One owner told The Sun his methods “turn this waste into something that is useful.”  

Regulators blasted the facility for a lack of emergency plans to prevent or halt a leak of dangerous chemicals. The facility is near homes and businesses off Coal Creek Canyon Road. 

“A loss of solution from the tanks has the potential to flow off-site,” the inspectors said. “The facility is located immediately to the north and upgradient of Barbara Gulch, an ephemeral drainage that flows eastwards into Leyden Lake. Leyden Lake is a City of Arvada stormwater detention facility that is located between Colorado 72 and West 82nd Avenue. Leyden Lake flows into Leyden Creek, which is a tributary of Ralston Creek.”

Arvada officials said the operations do not present any threat to their drinking water sources.

Rocky Flats Environmental Solutions LLC’s facility is pictured at right, beyond houses in the Leyden Rock area of in Arvada on Aug. 2, 2022. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Owners of the operation are adamant that they do not need state mining operations permits for their work.  

“These guys came in hostile, they threatened us, and I’ve never had an agency act that way,” David Emslie, one of the listed owners of Rocky Flats Environmental Solutions, said in an interview. Emslie said the EPA and other agencies “love” the company for offering new methods of mining cleanup, and that state mining inspectors appear to have “a vendetta” against their operation. 

Mining waste can be processed and “everything put to good and beneficial use,” Emslie said.

“Much of these metals have to come from somewhere and if we can de-Superfund Superfund sites and remove an environmental problem while at the same time creating jobs and creating local materials that don’t have to be shipped halfway across the world that can be used locally for the creation of everything from computers to solar panels to electric cars, it is a good idea to turn this waste into something that is useful,” Emslie said.

In November 2010, Emslie was featured in an I-News Network article published in the Boulder Daily Camera that showed him using a potent acid solution to re-refine gold in the garage of a rented home in Fort Collins. The method he used is called “aqua regia” and regulators were surprised to hear he was deploying the toxic process in Colorado. The process is more common in e-waste dumps in China and Nigeria. 

Inspectors with the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety took photos in July of tanks with cyanide solution outside the main building at the Rocky Flats Environmental Solutions as part of their 22-page inspection report, which deemed the facility an illegal operation. (Provided by the Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety)

A few days after the story was published, the Poudre Fire Authority ordered Emslie to stop metal refining in the home on College Avenue. In March 2011, the city published a notice in the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper that Emslie’s metal refining was operating without an industrial discharge permit and was not compliant with city code. The published legal notice of “industrial pretreatment noncompliance” noted that a January 2010 review by the city found that wastewater discharged from Emslie’s facility “did not cause … harm to the sanitary sewer, wastewater treatment plant or environment.”

In 2019, Emslie ran afoul of state regulators with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who argued he should do a better job of disposing of gloves and filters used at his metal refining facility on Summit View Drive in Fort Collins. 

State inspectors documented stockpiled ore hauled from a mine near Nederland outside Rocky Flats Environmental Solutions facility in Arvada. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The CDPHE’s November 2020 list of approved handlers of hazardous materials lists Emslie’s Prospector’s Gold & Gems as a “very small generator” of hazardous waste at that same facility in Fort Collins. Prospector’s Gold & Gems has posted dozens of online videos of him processing and milling ore and using his proprietary method to leach gold from used electronic parts.  

The inspectors with the Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety noted 20 tons of ore on the Rocky Flats site from the Cross and Caribou Mine above Nederland, which itself was hit with a cease-and-desist order in November 2021 by the Department of Public Health and Environment after leaking heavy metals into creeks nearby. Water quality officials with the department ordered the mine owners to build a new containment and cleanup system, and threatened to impose fines of up to $54,833 per day for each of multiple violations for the toxic metals and for failing to report test results. 

The mining reclamation board eventually imposed a $17,000 fine on owners of the Cross and Caribou mines for water quality violations, but suspended all but $5,000 of the penalty as long as Grand Island Resources continues “good faith” efforts to install containment and cleanup equipment.

The entrance to Rocky Flats Environmental Solutions LLC’s facility is pictured in Arvada on Aug. 2, 2022. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The owners of the Nederland mine, Grand Island Resources, said they had sent small amounts of materials to the Jefferson County facility for testing. State inspectors wrote that representatives from the mine said they had shipped 20 tons of ore to the facility in August and September last year. Grand Island Resources President Daniel Takami said his mine sent “low grade ore  described as ‘stockpiled ore’ on page two of the inspection report” to the mill site in August last year for “extractive metallurgical testing, a type of laboratory analysis that is exempted from MLRB regulations.”

“The testing we asked Highway 72 mill site to perform for us has not been paid for or completed, while we await final approval from CDPHE,” Takami said, in an email. 

CORRECTION: This article and headline were updated on Aug. 3, 2022, to reflect that Standley Lake is not in or owned by Arvada, and to update with Arvada’s assertion there is no threat to drinking water.

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins