Former mine owner says red tape harms operation
CARBONDALE – The former owner of an alabaster and marble mine in the Crystal Valley claims regulatory red tape has the potential to snuff the operation just as it derailed his plans six years ago.
Robert Congdon, former owner of the White Banks Mine, said he abandoned plans to work the mine in 2005 after fighting regulators with the U.S. Forest Service. The agency’s approach to his proposal changed after extensive turnover at the Aspen-Sopris District Ranger station, he said.
Congdon said he sold his interests in the mine but remains a consultant to the current owners, who are headed by attorney Walt Brown of Glenwood Springs. Their firm is called Elbram Stone Co. “I’m just there to get the permit through,” Congdon said. The mine is now known as the Mystic Eagle Mine.
Although the agency personnel that Congdon butted heads with are gone, he remains concerned that the Forest Service has overstepped its regulatory bounds. It started a new environmental assessment of the mine’s application for an operating permit even though the mine has been in operation since 1992. Congdon said prior Forest Service monitoring showed a clean record on environmental issues. A wildlife biologist for the agency, for example, found the operation didn’t affect big horn sheep in the area.
The Mystic Eagle Mine is located along Avalanche Creek, less than 1 mile from Highway 133. The site is about 11.5 miles south of Carbondale.
Congdon contends that the 1872 Mining Law is in place to speed the extraction of minerals. The Forest Service can regulate surface conditions, to ensure that mining doesn’t damage other resources. However, the agency’s own rules mandate a decision on the mine’s operating permit within 90 days, he claimed.
“They’re about a year over their 90-day time limit,” Congdon said.
Brown and his partners bought the Mystic Eagle Quarry about three years ago and have undertaken little activity since then. They applied in early 2010 to expand to a year-round operation. They are seeking a 20-year permit.
The miners contend the Forest Service was required to act within 90 days of receiving the proposal. The Forest Service says the clock doesn’t start ticking until all required information is submitted and the application is deemed complete, according to Congdon.
The Forest Service started holding public meetings last month and is accepting public comment on the mining proposal. Congdon said the mining team has been told it could be eight months before a decision is made.
Aspen District Ranger Scott Snelson acknowledged in a prior interview that the 1872 Mining Law limits the issues he can consider. His decision will focus on the surface conditions the miners must follow rather than whether or not the mining can proceed, he said.
Even if the outcome on the mining decision isn’t in doubt, a lengthy review still can damage the economic viability of the mine, Congdon claimed. The owners will not make expensive investments unless they know they will get a year-round operating permit, Congdon said, and if mining remains limited to half the year, those investments won’t be made. The owners also need a 20-year permit to make the investment worthwhile, according to Congdon.
The mine has already produced alabaster of multi-hues as well as brown marble. They are about 90 feet from hitting a vein of black marble that geology reports indicate is 60 feet thick and three-quarters of a mile long. The vein is titled at a 45-degree pitch.
Congdon said that marble will make the investment of time and money in the mine pay off. It is high quality mineral that will be popular for interior and exterior uses, from countertops and fireplace mantles to outside columns. Buyers will want to know they can acquire a steady supply year-round, not just part of the year, Congdon claimed.
Congdon complained about regulatory red tape to U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R.-Cortez, whose 3rd Congressional District includes most of western Colorado. Tipton took a tour of the district last month to hear the concerns of small business owners.
While the mining team feels there has been too much regulation by the Forest Service, residents adjacent the mine are pressing the agency for more detailed review. The Aspen Times detailed their concerns in a Feb. 24 article, including traffic, noise and environmental degradation.
Some residents of Swiss Village, across Highway 133 from the mine, claimed prior use of explosives at the mine caused shock waves that broke windows and cracked structures. Congdon vehemently denied that his work created any such problems. He produced a report from the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology from March 31, 2004, that said blasting was “imperceptible” about 1,000 feet from the mine portal “in terms of vibration felt and noise detected.” Officials stationed at Swiss Village during the blast reported the same result.
The minerals and geology division also investigated a homeowners report in January 2004 that blasting at the mine caused cracks in the walls of her house. The report said the evidence was inconclusive.
Congdon claimed he undertook operations with the intent of being a good neighbor but has been portrayed as an unsympathetic operator. The neighbors won’t sign off on any mining plan, no matter how benign, he said.
“The neighbors have it in their heads that ‘no’ is what the answer should be,” Congdon said.
He suspects the Forest Service is beefing up its review so a decision to allow mining to proceed will survive a legal challenge. Congdon said the saga of the Mystic Eagle Mine is, in a nutshell, a story about what’s wrong with America today: self-interests and regulation choke chances to start a small business. He feels the scrutiny is unwarranted.
“We are not a cyanide-leaching gold,” Congdon said. “We’re removing a piece of rock.”
Environmental regulations are necessary, he said, but conservationists have gained too much of an upper hand. The pendulum swung from “anything goes” to “nothing is allowed.” Now, some balance is needed, Congdon said.
The mine owners are holding a public meeting from 6-8 p.m. Friday, March 11, at Carbondale Town Hall to try to rally supporters and educate the public.
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