Alabaster operation subject of complaint for violating permit
Colorado’s Mined Land Reclamation Board will rule on a complaint next Tuesday or Wednesday against Robert Congdon’s Avalanche Creek alabaster mining operation.
Carl Mount, an environmental protection specialist for the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology, said Congdon has been using National Forest land outside of his permit area as a staging area for shipping alabaster and storing other items. Congdon, however, said he has permission from the Forest Service to use the land for temporary storage, and has applied for a new mine permit that includes that area. He said he hasn’t received a notice of the Reclamation Board hearing.
Pitkin County’s Environmental Health Department has inspected the operation repeatedly since it opened last year and found no violations. The original permit was for a disturbance area of .3 acres, Congdon said, and the new application is for use of about 2.5 acres.
Minerals and Geology has received an application for the larger area, Mount said, but the application is not complete. Congdon said the application lacked some maps, and he has submitted those. He said the company is not doing anything at the Avalanche Creek mine site until the permit is secured. “I don’t want to muddy the waters,” he said.
Congdon said the fee for the application is not significant, but the time that goes into preparing it is outrageous. He said he considers the complaint “not a big deal,” and expects it to be settled amicably.
“The environmental impact is slight to minimal, if any,” Congdon said. “It’s not like it’s a cyanide heap-leach [gold] mine or a giant coal mine or something.”
Congdon must be granted a permit to include a larger area in order to avoid fines and a possible order to shut down his operation. The exact penalty imposed, if any, Mount explained, will depend on what the board decides. If the matter isn’t cleared up, Mount said, Congdon could face penalties of $50 to $200 per day for each day the operation was in violation of his permit.
Mount said his department received a complaint concerning Congdon’s operation from Pat Zollinger of Redstone on Sept. 14, 1998. Zollinger claimed that blocks of alabaster, a large quantity of pipe, a portable toilet, a trailer used by the miners to shower after work, and other materials were stored on land across the road from the mine.
Congdon called the complaint ridiculous, and said Zollinger had also alleged that the mine had exceeded its permit quota by shipping more than 70,000 tons of stone in the first year. In fact, Congdon said, the operation has shipped about 600 tons of stone, a fact confirmed by Mount.
Inspectors from DMG visited the site on Oct. 21, and found that, as the complaint alleged, the items, except for the toilet, were stored outside of the area covered by Congdon’s permit.
The department notified Congdon, who said the stone would be shipped before winter, Mount said.
On Jan. 28, Mount said, he visited the site and found most of the stone had been removed from the property across the road from the mine. But small amounts of alabaster and mine waste remained, along with some air duct material and a large mining machine.
He notified Congdon that day that the materials should be within the permit area.
“We generally try to work with the operator and try to get him to file a complete permit application,” Mount said.
The mining operation easily passed its first annual review by the Pitkin County commissioners in April. No comments from the public were offered, and no objections were raised by county staffers.
Pitkin County issued Congdon a conditional 25-year permit to mine alabaster, a stone similar to marble, in 1998. The operation of the mine is to be reviewed annually by the county commissioners to ensure compliance with the numerous conditions in the permit.
Congdon’s mine is one of only a handful in the world that produces alabaster. The soft stone is used in home interiors for such things as vanities, mantel pieces, table tops, counter tops and flooring. The company has a finishing plant near Carbondale, where it produces these items and a line of “fetishes,” or animal figurines between three and 12 inches in size, sold in gift shops throughout the state.
Tourists are fascinated by the large blocks of white stone at the mine site, Congdon said, and local sculptors are starting to work with the stone.
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