Avalanche mine options: Wintertime work or not? | AspenTimes.com

Avalanche mine options: Wintertime work or not?

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

CARBONDALE – A 30-day public comment period on alternatives to operate an alabaster mine in the Avalanche Creek Valley, south of Carbondale, begins Monday.

The U.S. Forest Service last week released its environmental assessment on the proposed operation. The 83-page document, plus attachments, analyzes both the operating plan that the mine’s owners proposed, and an alternative developed by the agency that prohibits wintertime surface operations.

In addition, the Forest Service analyzed a “no action” alternative – one that doesn’t allow the mining operation to take place, though Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson has already indicated that the agency cannot prevent access to someone’s mineral holdings. Analysis of the no-action option is nonetheless required.

“We can’t not give them access to their mineral, but we can say how, when and where,” said Skye Sieber, NEPA coordinator with the White River National Forest.

The environmental assessment does not identify a recommended alternative. Rather, the Forest Service will seek input on the document and host a question-and-answer session Sept. 21 at the mine site. Ultimately, it will be up to Snelson to make the decision.

The application for resuming operation of the Mystic Eagle Mine initially proposed year-round activity, seven days a week, including underground mining 24 hours a day, two shifts of surface work on weekdays, and daytime surface activity on weekends. On-site camping for employees was also proposed. But, a modified plan the mine owners submitted last spring would eliminate wintertime camping and limit surface operations during the winter months to between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., five days a week. It also limits large truck shipments to five round trips per day, five days a week, during the winter.

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The Forest Service alternative would not permit on-site camping at any time of the year, would not allow additional buildings and wouldn’t allow surface operations between Nov. 15 and April 30 annually. A bypass road, taking public travel away from the mine site, would be permitted. The bypass was proposed in the mine application.

Sieber said she anticipates a decision before year’s end. If wintertime operations are not allowed, no activity at the site would be likely until next spring at the earliest, she said.

“If the proposed action is selected, they could do something as early as this winter,” Sieber said.

The mine, formerly known as the White Banks Mine, is about 11.5 miles south of Carbondale and roughly 6 miles north of Redstone, along the road that leads to the Avalanche Creek campground. The road is closed to vehicles from Nov. 15 through April 30 annually to protect bighorn sheep. In addition, dogs aren’t permitted during those months, and people are restricted to the road. The mine portal is a short distance beyond the road closure gate.

According to the environmental assessment, year-round mining would bring the potential for disturbances that affect bighorn sheep habitat in the vicinity, but is not likely to result in a loss of viability in the habitat management area for sheep. However, the alternative that prohibits winter work at the mine is a response to concerns about the impact the mining would have on a sheep population that is in decline, the assessment notes.

Both Pitkin County and the Colorado Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) voiced objections to winter mining activity when the Forest Service sought scoping comments, in advance of the environmental assessment.

The Crystal Valley Caucus and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association have also come out in opposition to the proposed year-round mining operation. Neighbors have expressed concerns about environmental degradation and disruption of their peace and quiet.

The mine’s owners are seeking approval of a 20-year plan to operate the mine; the former operating plan expired in April 2010. The mining of marble and gypsum is proposed, along with alabaster, in their application.

The environmental assessment is available online at http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fs-usda-pop.php/?project=34869, as is a link to submit comments.

Those interested in attending the Sept. 21 session outside the mine (from 10 a.m. to noon) should register with their name, email address and phone number to Sieber by Sept. 20. To contact her, email ssieber@fs.fed.us, or call (970) 625-6864.

janet@aspentimes.com