Crystal mine operator and neighbors at odds | AspenTimes.com
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Crystal mine operator and neighbors at odds

Eben Harrell
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Conflict between a mine operator in the Crystal River Valley and some of his neighbors is heating up this week as the U.S. Forest Service moves closer to approving winter operations at the mine.

The Avalanche Mine is located less than a mile from residents of Swiss Village and Crystal River Estates. It currently operates from the beginning of May until Nov. 15.

In August mine operator Robert Congdon asked for approval from the Forest Service for year-round work.

Over the past few months, wildlife experts from the state Department of Wildlife and the Forest Service have been examining the mine’s impact. There have been no findings so far that would prevent approval of year-round expansion, Forest Service officials say.

Bill Brunworth, a Swiss Village resident, is nevertheless dead set against the expansion. Swiss Village is one of the more densely populated neighborhoods in the otherwise rural Crystal River Valley.

Brunworth said the lifting of winter restrictions will endanger the herd of bighorn sheep that the restrictions were meant to protect.

The Forest Service disagrees. Maggie Dowd, acting district ranger of the Sopris District, said the mine is outside of the management area for bighorn sheep. She also said that if the mine is granted a winter permit, it will only be for a one-year trial period.

“We have consulted wildlife experts, and so far they are giving us the green light,” Dowd said. “If the mine gets final approval, it will only be for this winter, after which the USFS and Department of Wildlife will carefully examine any environmental impacts.”

But Brunworth said the Forest Service is trying to slip approval for winter operations past the attention of residents.

“Other residents and I have said all along how [much we are] against winter operations,” he said. “But what really concerns me is how we’ve had no chance for public comment or scrutiny. The next meeting of the Crystal Valley Caucus is after the November 15 deadline.”

Congdon contends he has done all he can to maintain communication with residents.

“I understand the residents are upset,” he said. “But there’s nothing I can do to make them happy. I’ve been to the last two caucus meetings, and I’ve tried my best to mitigate their concerns.

“The one thing I can’t do is leave.”

Dowd agreed that Congdon has maintained a transparent operation, at least in his relationship to the Forest Service.

“He has the mining claims, which means technically there’s nothing that says he can’t mine through the winter,” she said. “That he has worked with us so closely shows how careful he has been.”

Congdon, who describes himself as an environmentalist, believes he hasn’t been given enough credit by conservationists.

“I could have strip mined this, which would have been cheaper,” he said. “Also, the reason I haven’t gone ahead with winter mining thus far is because I had a noisy generator that would have disturbed wildlife. I’ve installed power lines so that won’t be a problem.”

Dowd said the Forest Service has also been treading carefully, understanding that mine expansion near a community is a heated issue.

“We are making sure we do all we can to strike a balance between mining, conservation and communities,” she said. “Any permit we give to Congdon will be presented to the Crystal Valley Caucus at its next meeting in December. Right now, Congdon’s mine is in a fish bowl.

“We have to make sure it stands up to scrutiny.”

[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com]


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