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Mercury contamination found at Independence

Jeremy Heiman

An environmental study has discovered mercury contamination in mining waste on a property in the ghost town of Independence.

Just how stable and how widespread the mercury is will be determined in the second phase of the study, to be completed by July 18. The study was done on behalf of Aspen Valley Land Trust, a land conservation organization which has contracted to buy the property from the Loughran family, its owners since the 1930s.

“There’s some mercury in the mill tailings, so we have to determine how much of a remediation effort is necessary,” said Reid Haughey, executive director of AVLT. The environmental firm hired by AVLT will collect and analyze samples of the material to determine whether the tailings contain a stable or hazardous form of the metal, he said. Mercury, which is toxic in some forms, was formerly used in the process of extracting precious metals from ore.

AVLT made an offer on the 160-acre parcel, a patented mining claim, after it went on the market last winter, with the intent of passing it on to the U.S. Forest Service and preventing it from being developed. The environmental study is under way, Haughey said, because the Forest Service is fussy about the environmental quality of its property.

“They won’t enter into discussions until they know it’s an environmentally clean site,” he said.

If significant contamination is found, Haughey said, AVLT would likely hire a firm specializing in cleaning up such sites. But that depends on the outcome of the study.

“It may turn out that it’s stable and it’s nothing to be concerned about,” Haughey said. “We just don’t know that.”

AVLT is partnering with The Wilderness Land Trust, a national organization based in Bend, Ore., that specializes in purchasing private lands, or inholdings, within federally designated wilderness areas. That group is involved because part of the Independence property is within the boundaries of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness.

The Land Trust has received a $300,000 grant from Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program to help with the purchase. Because the property is partly within the historic Independence ghost town, the group is also in discussions with the state’s historic preservation office for funding, Haughey said.

AVLT has applied for a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, the state’s lottery fund for parks and open space. Haughey said he expects an answer from GOCO by July 20. The contract on the property has been extended until July 27, Haughey said.

The Open Space and Trails grant and any other grants AVLT receives will enable the group to sell the property at a discounted price, Haughey said. Making the land a good deal would be likely to make the purchase a higher priority for the Forest Service.

“Everybody likes a sale,” he said.

If AVLT is able to complete the purchase, turning the property over to the federal government is likely to take two to three years. Haughey said Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis has said he would support funding for the purchase in the 2002 federal budget cycle.

Though the property is under contract to AVLT, an Aspen real estate company continues to advertise it, asking for backup offers. Because the property is in Pitkin County’s Rural and Remote zone district, development would be restricted to a 1,000-square-foot cabin.


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