Frustrated county OKs winter mining permit up the Crystal |

Frustrated county OKs winter mining permit up the Crystal

Eben Harrell
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Pitkin County commissioners granted amendments to a controversial miner’s permit that will allow winter mining operations yesterday. But they said greater consideration should be given to the complaints of residents adjacent to the mine.

The commissioners also expressed frustration in their lack of jurisdiction over the mine, which is located on federal land.

Robert Congdon runs the White Banks Alabaster Mine, a marble mine located in the Crystal River Valley. He has a 20-year permit from the county that is reviewed annually.

In yesterday’s review, the county granted several amendments to his permit, including the inclusion of five camping spots on his site, the extension of working hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and, most controversially, the granting of year-round operations.

Congdon’s mine is adjacent to a winter protection zone for a herd of bighorn sheep. The U.S. Forest Service has granted Congdon a one-year permit for winter mining, with the provision of close monitoring by USFS and Department of Wildlife experts over the one-year trial period.

Throughout the meeting, the commissioners were frustrated by the lack of jurisdiction regarding the mine.

“The United States federal government is the big fish in this instance,” John Ely, legal counsel to Pitkin County, told the board. “[The county] cannot contravene what the federal government has laid out.”

Ely said the county can only act on issues regarding “off-site” effects of the mining. In this case, such effects include the impact of loud blasting on adjacent neighborhoods. Residents of two nearby communities have recently complained of damage done to their homes by vibrations caused by blasting. There was also concern that winter blasting would pose an avalanche risk.

Bill Brunworth, who lives in Swiss Village less than a mile from the mine, has vociferously opposed Congdon’s operations from the start. He expressed concern that the Forest Service has granted Congdon winter mining rights without proper input from concerned residents.

Although he understood the county is limited in how it can inhibit Congdon’s operations, Brunworth vowed to do all he can to ensure a fair hearing from the Forest Service.

Speaking during the break to Commissioner Mick Ireland, Brunworth said, “I’ll never get off [USFS representative Bill Westbrook’s] tail. I’m not rolling over here. It’s a personality trait. They don’t know what they are up against with me.”

Several county commissioners shared his concerns. Ireland expressed support for Brunworth during the break.

“I understand where you are coming from,” Ireland told Brunworth. “I’m doing all I can to help, in my own way.”

In response largely to the concerns of nearby residents, the board urged the Forest Service to consider undertaking an environmental analysis, a large-scale investigation into the mine that would include public input.

The board also agreed to hold a work session in six months with Congdon and representatives from the state Department of Geology, the Forest Service, the Department of Wildlife and the Swiss Village subdivision. The work session will closely examine the concerns of Swiss Village representatives versus the mining rights of Congdon.

Both Brunworth and Congdon were pleased with the decision. Brunworth said he felt the county had given as much support as they could to his concerns. Congdon also felt the commissioners had given his mining rights a fair hearing.

“I’m really quite pleased,” Congdon said. “The commissioners are working from a middle ground. They are taking both the legitimate concerns of nearby residents and my legal rights as a miner into consideration.”

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