Neighbors wary of plan to reopen marble mine
CARBONDALE – The owners of the last working mine in Pitkin County say they are within 90 feet of making years of hard work and investment pay off when they strike a lucrative black marble vein. They are eager to get an operating permit renewed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Neighbors in the Crystal Valley dread the return of operations after having experienced damage to their homes and shattering of their tranquility from prior use of explosives at the mine. Environmentalists are concerned about potential effects on wildlife. They want mining operations severely limited, if they must be tolerated at all.
The U.S. Forest Service will make the call on what can occur at the Mystic Eagle Mine, about 11.5 miles south of Carbondale and 6.5 miles north of Redstone. The agency is undertaking an environmental study of the mine’s effects. Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson will ultimately decide under what conditions the mine can operate.
“A lot of people are in favor and a lot of people are against a project like this,” acknowledged Walt Brown, a Glenwood Springs attorney and investor in the mine. He is representing the ownership. The other owners don’t want to be identified, he said.
About 25 people attended a tour of the mine exterior along Avalanche Creek Wednesday, and they peppered Forest Service officials and Brown with questions about the proposed operation. Sprinkled into several neutral questions were concerns about ramped-up mine operations.
Terry Griggs, president of the Swiss Village homeowners’ association, said prior use of explosives at the mine damaged windows and rattled nerves. He had to replace three windows and his neighbors’ homes also suffered damage. “We got no warning last time,” he said.
Griggs and other residents are concerned that blasting will again disrupt their lives and damage their property. “Who’s going to pay for that?” he asked.
Swiss Village and Crystal River Estates subdivisions are home to about 50 families on the hillside across Highway 133 from the entry road to the mine.
Brown tried to assure the assembly that mining operations will be different under the current ownership.
“Future blasting will be in smaller amounts,” Brown said. The underground explosions will be undertaken in a way that they won’t be heard even at the closest homes, he said.
The mine was started by Robert Congdon in 1995 on unpatented mining claim in the White River National Forest. He mined eye-catching alabaster that came in black, brown and combination swirls. It’s used for landscaping, sculpture and landscaping.
Congdon eventually sold all his interest to Brown and other investors in Elbram Stone Co. Congdon remains a consultant because of his knowledge of mining in general and of that mine in particular, Brown said.
Brown said he and his partners mined for the last three years. Their operating permit from the Forest Service expired last year. They applied for a new permit with different conditions, including the right to work year-round rather than just six months of the year.
“It doesn’t make sense to run it six months of the year,” Brown said. However, demand will dictate if there is activity during the winter, he said, and there is no intent to work at night.
The miners want a 20-year permit from the Forest Service. The agency is conducting an environmental assessment to determine the effects of the mine. If the effects are great enough, the agency will perform a more detailed analysis called an environmental impact statement.
Swiss Village resident Sharon Hagedorn said a more extensive environmental review is necessary “since this has the potential to turn the whole beautiful area into an industrial site.”
She said she is particularly concerned about the mine’s effect on recreation, camping and wildlife. The mine site is between Highway 133 and the Avalanche Campground, where there are also popular trailheads to backcountry routes. The road is closed to everything but foot traffic in winters because it is critical bighorn sheep habitat. Dogs are strictly prohibited.
The mine’s operating proposal says that up to 10 heavy trucks could be needed per day to haul out marble and alabaster at peak production.
Hagedorn said the mine has a lot more potential to disturb wildlife than people walking their dogs.
“If we can’t take our dogs, what do you think 10 trucks are going to do?” she said.
Swiss Village resident and blue-collar worker James Watson said he is torn to some degree by the proposal. He doesn’t want to be a NIMBY, he said, because he understands the mine owners have invested in an operation they feel can be profitable. On the other hand, he has worked extensively in and around mines for part of his career and understands they are inherently noisy operations.
Watson said his biggest concern is that the mine operations will continue to escalate: Success by the current owners will lead to greater mining activity or potentially a sale to a larger mining company, which could produce greater success and additional investment and activity. Neighboring homeowners are legitimately concerned about their property values sagging because of the noise and activity, Watson said.
He predicted area residents and the mine owners will be “butting heads” over the proposal.
Not all concerns were voiced by neighbors of the mine. Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based conservation group, asked if the Forest Service review will test the owners’ claim that they need to operate year-round to make the operation profitable. The answer is yet to be determined, Forest Service officials said.
Mike Vanian of Glenwood Springs asked what the public will gain if the mining company will be allowed to use public lands for the mine.
Snelson responded that Congress apparently determined that mining was a public benefit when the 1872 mine law was passed. That law – decried by environmentalists and other observers – limits governments’ powers to regulate mines.
Snelson made it clear the attendees of the tour realize he has “much narrower decision making” ability on the mine than on many matters in the national forest because of the 1872 mining law. In large part, the agency is limited to regulating surface conditions at the mine.
Public comments are being accepted until Friday, March 18. Written comments can be addressed to: White Banks Project, c/o Skye Sieber, Project Leader, 0094 County Road 244, Rifle, CO 81650 or they can be e-mailed to email@example.com. Persons commenting should include: name, address, telephone number, and organization represented, if any; and specific facts and supporting reasons for Snelson to consider.
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