Last mine remaining in Pitkin County objects to limits
CARBONDALE – The managing partner of the only working underground mine remaining in Pitkin County claimed this week that limits placed on the operation by the U.S. Forest Service threaten to drive him out of business.
Walt Brown, manager of Elbram Stone Co. LLC, on Monday appealed a March 2 decision by Aspen-Sopris district manager Scott Snelson on a plan of operation for the mine along Avalanche Creek, 6.5 miles north of Redstone and 11.5 miles south of Carbondale in the Crystal Valley. Snelson’s decision came after a lengthy environmental assessment by the agency.
Brown said the mine is hamstrung by the Forest Service decision that mining cannot occur between Dec. 1 and April 30 unless it could prove the operation didn’t have a detrimental effect on bighorn sheep. He also objected to a requirement that the company pay more than $250,000 for a study on bighorn sheep.
“The decision essentially makes the financial and operating feasibility of the project impossible due to not being able to operate year round and having to finance a study of a plentiful, nonthreatened animal, bighorn sheep,” Elbram Stone Co.’s appeal said.
In an interview, Brown said the mining operation isn’t profitable enough to absorb the cost of the study and generate the funds needed to restart operations.
The White Banks Mine, also known as the Mystic Eagle Mine, produces multihued alabaster, black marble and gypsum. It was started by Robert Congdon in 1991 and produced material into 2002. Congdon and Pitkin County had a drawn-out battle over conditions on the mining. The fight was resolved in 1998.
Brown and two other partners bought the mine in 2007. The partners have since bailed because of the lengthy review process for an operating plan and because they anticipated limits on the operation.
The mine’s permit was set to expire in 2010. The Forest Service gave incremental extensions for a few months at a time during the review, Brown said.
His firm sought a 20-year permit. The Forest Service is willing to grant a five-year permit if he doesn’t agree to the bighorn sheep study, Brown said.
“It is a deal-breaker,” he said.
Brown said buyers of the mine’s stone products demand that supply be available year round. Under terms of the approval, that isn’t possible. The company cannot mine enough stone from May 1 to Nov. 30 to meet demand for a full year, he said. Mining is allowed during daylight hours, not 24/7.
Brown filed a 26-page appeal of Snelson’s decision. It gets into excruciating detail on several topics, including the mine’s alleged effects on big horn sheep. Brown denies that the mine’s operation has a detrimental effect on the animals.
The Forest Service was willing to issue a permit for five years; Elbram Stone Co. wanted it for 20 years. Brown said he was willing to compromise.
“I’d like to operate 12 months, but I agreed to stop operating for two months,” he said. He would have ceased operations in February and March, typically the snowiest months. Forest Service officials believe big horn sheep face their biggest challenges in those months.
Snelson said in his March 2 decision that the welfare of big horn sheep is paramount.
“My decision to select this alternative was developed in response to the key issue raised about potential impacts to bighorn sheep during critical winter periods,” he wrote.
Snelson’s decision also required Elbram to work with the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife on a five-year baseline monitoring program to establish the bighorn sheep population in the area. If the population is stable, there is the possibility of expanded operations into the winter.
Pitkin County government filed a “limited appeal” to the Forest Service decision. It doesn’t want to see exceptions to the ban on winter operations.
“The mine is located in a bighorn sheep winter concentration area,” the county’s appeal said. “Indeed, sheep congregate on the hillside directly above the mine portal during winter months. It is known that this sheep herd is stressed and is in serious decline. Pitkin County has consistently recommended a continued prohibition of winter operations as a condition of any Forest Service approval. We feel there should be no operations at all permitted in the months of December through April.”
The appeals will be assessed in the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region office in Denver.
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