Experts provide guidance
In an effort to increase public awareness and understanding of the proposed Lucky Jack mine, the local environmental nonprofit group, High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA), held its Red Lady Forum on Tuesday, October 23, 2007, with the goal of forming a community-wide coalition.
“Our goal tonight is to share information with you, help to increase the public’s awareness, identify the potential impacts, and explain what the community can do,” said Gwen Pettit, incoming president of HCCA. “The proposed mine on Mt. Emmons is not just a HCCA issue, it’s a community challenge.”
More than 200 county residents attended the forum, held at the Center for the Arts in Crested Butte on Tuesday night, with a second event planned in Gunnison on Wednesday.
The forum included informational presentations by HCCA staff, a panel discussion and a question and answer period. Four presentations included information on the history of mining in the area, details of the US Energy Corp. and Kobex proposal, an overview of the permitting process, and a discussion concerning how the community could stop the mine development. Panel members consisted of local and state government officials, industry experts, and representatives from national environmental organizations, along with HCCA.
Emcee David Houghton said the purpose of the night was to learn. “I am in the same boat as many of you—I know a little, but not enough,” Houghton said.
The learning began with Glo Cunningham’s presentation on the history of the valley. Gunnison valley’s history is steeped in mining, with the first mine established in 1880. Since then, Crested Butte has seen several mines come and go, Cunningham said.
But the economics of the valley began to change in the 1960s, with tourism, recreation and ranching replacing mining, and the area “became a magnet for recreation,” Cunningham explained. But mining left its impacts in the valley, Cunningham said, referring to the Keystone wastewater treatment plant.
Cunningham’s presentation provided a foundation for the remaining presenters, who focused on the current struggle. HCCA’s mineral resources director, Bob Salter, provided details on the Lucky Jack mine proposal. He said the mine is expected to produce nearly 6,000 tons of ore daily, and its effects would be felt throughout the valley. U.S. Energy has proposed placing the mine’s tailings location in the headwaters of Ohio Creek, using Whiterock Avenue as a possible transportation route, and damming Elk Creek for needed water storage, Salter reported.
“It’s now or never—we have to stop this mine and prevent any future generations from having to fight this again,” Salter said.
Stopping the mine through the permitting process was the focus of HCCA public lands director Dan Morse’s presentation. Morse said there are four levels to the permitting process. In the case of the Lucky Jack mine, the developers will be required to obtain permits from the Forest Service; from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety; from the county; and from the Town of Crested Butte. Morse said a “fifth” category of permits could include Environmental Protection Agency permits and various air quality permits.
“The bottom line is that permitting for any mining project is lengthy and complex,” Morse said, “…and the (Lucky Jack) mine is not a done deal.”
Morse explained the Forest Service permitting process is the most comprehensive and can take four or five years to complete. US Energy Corp. plans to submit its plan of operation to the Forest Service in the first quarter of 2008. At that time, the Forest Service will review the document and determine if it meets the agency’s requirements; if it does, the NEPA process would begin. NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act, which analyzes environmental impacts of major projects
During the NEPA process, an EIS (environmental impact statement) would be prepared and a scoping period would follow. During a scoping period, a federal agency allows for public input and comment on proposed activity on public lands.
Morse reported that a “no action” alternative on the plan of operation may be illegal because of regulations in the 1872 Mining law.
Morse said the state permitting process focuses on bonding, inspection and enforcement, while the county land use resolutions and special development regulations, locally known as 1041, evaluate environmental, economic, and social impacts of large projects. Morse said the county permitting process can take up to six months.
The Gunnison County commissioners are currently updating the special development regulations.
Morse said the Crested Butte watershed ordinance puts the burden of proof on the applicants, rather than on the Town, in its permitting process. The town is currently updating the watershed ordinance and there is a moratorium on building within the watershed boundaries.
“We can participate and be effective in the permitting process,” Morse reassured the audience. “(HCCA) will keep you informed as to when those public opportunities to participate come up.”
Steve Glazer, HCCA’s water director, provided the fourth presentation on how the community could stop the mine, including everything from the permitting process to a Congressional withdrawal of public lands.
“Participation is key to stopping the mine,” Glazer said.
Glazer also said it would be important for the public to put pressure on regulatory agencies during the permitting process to make sure the “evaluation is thorough and comprehensive” and the “job is done right.” Glazer explained agencies are not adequately staffed and often have to hire consultants who work for the industry. HCCA plans to hire its own experts to work along the agencies’ consultants, Glazer said.
Panel member and presenter Roger Featherstone, of the grassroots environmental organization Earthworks, said a congressional or administrative withdrawal of the land would also be effective in stopping the mine, but it would have to be coordinated with some kind of buyout agreement of the private land. U.S. Energy currently holds 365 acres of patented land.
Morse said there have been ongoing discussions in the community about a buyout but the timing of such action would have to be strategic. The molybdenum market has a volatile history and the price has spiked and dipped several times in the last 50 years. The value of the molybdenum would greatly affect the price of the land, Morse explained.
Panel members also said reforms to the 1872 Mining Law could assist in stopping the mine. The reform bill was passed by the House Natural Resources Committee this week and is expected to pass the full House next week. The Senate could be a more difficult fight, but the bill has bipartisan support. “The climate is right for good and fundamental change,” Featherstone said.
The reforms would provide greater authority to local governments, require bonding for reclamation, allow congressional withdrawal of federal lands, and require a 8 percent gross income royalty on new mineral production.
Mt. Emmons is predicted to have 22 million tons of high-grade molybdenum and 220 million tons of low-grade molybdenum—more than the Henderson or Climax mines, according to David Chambers of the Center for Science and Public Participation. Chambers said with such a significant deposit, the likelihood of the proposal becoming a mine was high.
However, panel member and presenter Joe Marlow said the economics of the molybdenum industry may stop the mine before it ever begins. Marlow explained that the supply might exceed the demand as several molybdenum mines plan to resume operations or existing hard rock mines plan to add “circuits” to mine the molybdenum as a byproduct.
Glazer said the Henderson mine is operating at double shifts, 24 hours a day, and the Climax mine is scheduled to reopen in 2009. There are also two mines in Nevada, and another mine in New Mexico expected to open soon. “There will be a lot more product on the market soon,” Glazer said.
Featherstone said most mining operations are run by “junior” mining companies that are more interested in “mining investors, not minerals,” meaning they buy the mining claims, pump up their potential and sell them to another company that invests in the costly infrastructure required for mining.
After the presentations and prepared panel questions, HCCA fielded questions from the audience on topics ranging from bonding for reclamation to comment submission during the permitting processes.
Crested Butte resident Jim Schmidt asked how the EIS statement could include a more thorough report about the economic and social aspects, which he said tend to be “glossed over.”
Mark Hatcher of the U.S. Forest Service answered that the social impacts are required to be addressed, and the extent of how much is addressed depends on the project.
“The more comments—the more public request for more information—will lead to a more in-depth analysis,” Hatcher added.
Questions addressed not only the front end of the process, but also what plans were in the works to deal with the impacts of the mine after it closed.
Residents brought up concerns with bonding. Featherstone said reforms to the 1872 Mining Law would make sure bonding was much more substantial, and David Baumgarten, Gunnison County attorney, added that the county special development regulations could requiring bonding for impacts throughout the life of the mine.
“It kicks in when it’s needed,” Baumgarten added.
Chambers said bonding is especially important for mines where long-term water treatment is involved. It costs $1 million a year to operate the Keystone wastewater treatment plant.
A mine, however, does not have to close and start the reclamation process when operations are stopped, according to Carl Mount, senior environmental protection specialist for the State Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety.
Mines in Colorado can request from the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety a “standby” status for up to five years. An additional five years can be requested and at the end of the two terms the mine has to either resume operations or start the reclamation process. However, a mine can choose to operate for one day, then request the temporary status again—thus allowing the cycle to continue indefinitely, Mount said.
The audience also asked how they could participate and help with the fight. Morse said individuals can and should provide comments throughout the permitting process as well as support group efforts to fight the mine. “We need a conscious and common voice,” Morse said.
Crested Butte resident Molly Murfee asked how emotion and passion could be conveyed during the permitting process. Featherstone said “communities that show passion get the attention of politicians—passion makes the comments happen and the ball roll.”
Baumgarten added that emotion would need to be harnessed, since “factional presentations are how decisions get made.”
After the question and answer period ended, Pettit announced HCCA’s plans to host roundtable discussions to keep the public informed on the mine proposal. The first roundtable session will be held on Wednesday, November 7 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at a location to be determined.
Pettit also encouraged residents to learn more and sign up for the HCCA email list. Additional information on the topics presented at the forum can be found by visiting HCCA’s website, www.hccaonline.org.