Miner and county to discuss winter activity up the Crystal | AspenTimes.com

Miner and county to discuss winter activity up the Crystal

Eben Harrell
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A controversial miner will go before the Pitkin County commissioners this afternoon seeking permission to pursue winter operations at his mine.

But because the mine is located on U.S. Forest Service land, it is unclear whether the county has the jurisdiction to prevent him.

Robert Congdon runs the White Banks Alabaster Mine, a successful alabaster and marble mine located in the Crystal River Valley. Congdon has a 20-year permit from the county that must be reviewed annually. He has asked for several amendments to his permit this year, the most controversial of which is permission to mine through the winter.

In the past, the mine operated from the beginning of May until November 15.

This year, the Forest Service granted Congdon winter operations for a one-year trial period, subject to close monitoring by USFS and Department of Wildlife experts.

The mine is adjacent to a protection zone for a herd of bighorn sheep. When Congdon originally drafted his permit with Pitkin County, he forswore winter operations until he could find an alternative power source to the noisy and disruptive generator that powered the mine. Quiet power lines have recently been installed.

“I’ve done everything I can to mitigate environmental concerns,” Congdon said. “I probably had the only mine in the country that operates only six months of the year, but I’ve done that to make sure all the details have been seen to.”

The mine has come under public scrutiny recently because residents of two nearby communities have complained about the facility. These residents, headed most vocally by Swiss Village resident Bill Brunworth, are concerned about the environmental impact of the mining and also the loud blasting at the mine, which often occurs early in the morning.

Congdon said complaints have been isolated to the two small communities and that he has the support of the majority of Pitkin County’s residents.

He also said he has addressed the residents’ discontent over blasting by acquiring a new foam machine. The machine, developed recently by the Colorado School of Mines, injects nontoxic foam into a rock bed with enough force to break the stone. Congdon contends the foam machine will greatly reduce the need for blasting through the winter.

Even if the county wanted to prevent Congdon from winter mining, it is not clear whether it has the jurisdiction to do so.

“The jurisdiction between the county and the [Forest Service] is unclear,” said Lance Clark, county assistant director of community development. “The county only has a role in ‘off-site’ impacts, which are impacts outside the Forest Service’s land.”

Congdon said that while he respects the county commissioners, he believes they do not have the power to stop his operations. In the early ’90s, Pitkin County sued Congdon to inhibit operations. Congdon successfully countersued, claiming his mine was under federal jurisdiction

“In this case, federal law rules supreme,” Congdon said. “It was unclear for many years how much jurisdiction [the county] had on federal lands. Ten years of litigation has settled that.”

Clarke said because of the sensitive overlap with federal agencies, representatives from the Forest Service and Pitkin County’s legal counsel will attend today’s meeting to provide input.

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