The fight over the last producing mine in Pitkin County took another twist Friday when the U.S. Forest Service announced that it had reversed an earlier decision on the controversial White Banks Mine.
David Francomb, acting Aspen-Sopris District Ranger, issued a new decision that will allow Elbram Stone Co. LLC to mine enough marble over the next four years to determine if it is producing a high-quality, marketable product. If a Forest Service examiner determines the product is marketable, Elbram could earn approval for long-term, year-round production of marble.
The decision also allows the company to produce alabaster and gypsum year-round, with some winter restrictions.
Francomb said Elbram has a legal right to mine from its claims. The Forest Service has an obligation to make sure the activity is undertaken in a way that products surrounding resources on public lands.
The White Bank Mine is along Avalanche Creek, roughly 13 miles south of Carbondale and five miles north of Redstone. The prior and current owners have battled the Forest Service and Pitkin County since the early 1990s over rights to operate the mine year-round. There is extensive opposition from neighbors to mining.
The Forest Service authorized a plan of operation in 1995 that prohibited mining between Nov. 30 and May 1. That plan expired on April 30, 2010, but Elbram received extensions while the agency considered a new proposal for operations.
A decision by former Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson in March 2012 renewed the winter restrictions on mining because of possible impacts on bighorn sheep in the area. Snelson also ruled that Elbram had to contribute to a study on bighorn populations. If that study showed a stable population, the decision left the door open for year-round operations.
Elbram filed an administrative appeal, and the review officer found issues needed to be reconsidered. Elbram also filed a lawsuit to try to spur quicker reconsideration by the Forest Service.
Francomb’s decision this week withdraws the former decision and replaces it. Elbram doesn’t have to pay for the bighorn-sheep study, the new decision says. It also authorizes a phased mining approach that could result in approval of long-term, year-round mining. The mining company can do limited exploration and development for marble — to see if it is valuable and marketable.
Elbram has four years to produce enough marble for a Forest Service examiner to determine whether it is marketable. Within those four years, Elbram can undertake winter operations to produce marble for one year on a trial basis. The trial, from Dec. 1 through April 30, is restricted to surface activities only between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays. Large trucks can be used to haul minerals from the mine only for five round trips each weekday, according to the decision. There can be no winter camping on site, the decision says.
Underground operations can be undertaken year-round through August 2017.
Francomb said Elbram requested approval of a one-year trial for winter operations to produce marble. His decision said he believes limiting surface activity during winter months is necessary for the benefit of bighorn sheep.
Walt Brown, a spokesman for the owners, said in prior interviews, that his company needs a 20-year operating permit and it needs year-round approval to make it worthwhile to invest in production. Customers need a guarantee that marble and alabaster will be available, he said. His firm will have to prove to the Forest Service that it has a unique and high-value marble that warrants year-round operations.
Brown couldn’t be reached at his office Friday.
Francomb’s decision is open to appeal from parties that weighed in on the original decision by Snelson. Appeals must be filed within 45 days of the decision note, which was May 23.