Winter mining ban tossed out at Avalanche Creek site
PITKIN COUNTY – A U.S. Forest Service decision that prohibited winter operations of an alabaster and marble mine in the Crystal River Valley has been overturned in an administrative appeal.
An appeal-reviewing officer in the Forest Service found there wasn’t adequate evidence that the mine would have enough of an impact on bighorn sheep to justify the conditions placed on the operation by Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson.
Review officer Sherry Hazelhurst reversed the entire decision notice on operations of the White Banks Mine. That means approval for a new plan of operations, with numerous conditions, is withdrawn, Hazelhurst wrote in her Aug. 2 decision.
“The reversal of the decision means there is no decision,” Snelson said. “We’ll need to make a new decision.”
But Snelson and Walt Brown, a partner in Elbram Stone Co. LLC, have differing opinions on what that means for the mine.
“I think the Forest Service has to issue the permit,” Brown said. “It’s a complete reversal.”
White Banks Mine, formerly known as the Mystic Eagle Mine, is along Avalanche Creek, a short distance off Highway 133 and about 11.5 miles south of Carbondale, in rural Pitkin County. Brown’s company applied for a 20-year permit. It said year-round operations were critical to make the mine economical.
In a decision in March, Snelson decided the mine must cease operations and remove all equipment before Nov. 30. Foot traffic at the mine also was banned from Jan. 16 to March 15. The decision also required the owner to work with the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife on a five-year monitoring program to establish bighorn sheep populations in the area. It would allow limited winter mining if it could be established that the sheep population was stable.
Snelson wrote in his decision that the potential impacts to bighorn sheep during the critical winters months shaped his finding. Brown countered there was no evidence the mine would have any effect on bighorn sheep. Brown appealed Snelson’s decision in April on several grounds. He wrote that the restriction of winter operations and requirements that Elbram Stone Co. contribute to the bighorn-sheep-monitoring program “is the crux of this matter.”
The review officer sided with Brown on that issue.
“Despite overall evidence that the bighorn sheep habitat is declining, I do not find that the environmental assessment adequately discusses the relationship that this plan of operations will have on the bighorn sheep herd, nor is there an adequate explanation about the factors that led to the conclusion that mitigation measures related to the mine are necessary to protect bighorn sheep habitat,” Hazelhurst wrote.
Later in her decision, she wrote the mining company had no financial responsibility to determine why bighorn sheep numbers in the broader area were declining in prior years, when the mine wasn’t operating.
Hazelhurst didn’t rule on 12 other points in Elbram’s appeal that she said were rendered “moot” because of her finding that the approval of a new plan of operations was withdrawn.
Brown said his firm is eager to start mining alabaster and marble so it can earn money to offset some of its investment. He hopes for quick clearance by the Forest Service for mining operations since the mining company applied for a permit in Jan. 2010.
Snelson said the reversal of his decision doesn’t mean the mine can fire up equipment.
“It means it doesn’t have an approved plan of operation,” Snelson said. He and his staff will meet this week to determine how to proceed with review of the mine.
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