County says tunnel will trigger review
Local environmental group High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA) is calling on the state of Colorado to reconsider its decision that may allow a new exploratory tunnel to be built on Mt. Emmons.
The Western Mining Action Project filed a petition on Monday, March 3 with the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety (DRMS) on behalf of HCCA asking for a hearing before the Mined Land Reclamation Board. If granted, the seven-member board, which is made up of governor appointees, will reconsider the state’s decision in a formal proceeding.
If built, the 8×10-foot tunnel, called a “drift” by miners, will be approximately 3,600 feet long and used to collect core samples from the ore deposit. The samples will be used to evaluate the mine’s economic viability for Lucky Jack project developers, U.S. Energy and Kobex.
Mine developers and the state consider the new tunnel “prospecting,” an action that can be approved without public input or triggering environmental review.
“The state has given us approval for prospecting—not mining,” says Kobex Resources Ltd. chief operating officer Maurice Tagami, denying the assertion that the tunnel is a “Trojan horse” to begin mining.
However, HCCA says the new tunnel represents a new mining feature that could be used in later mining operations. “It goes beyond simple exploration,” says HCCA mineral resources director Bob Salter. “This will increase the value of their mineral property significantly.”
Lucky Jack is owned and operated by Kobex Resources Ltd. and U.S. Energy Corp. The companies acquired more than 5,000 acres of mining patents on Mt. Emmons, known locally as Red Lady, and an accompanying water treatment plant as the result of a 2005 district court ruling.
Shortly after, the companies announced their intent to pursue a molybdenum mining project on Mt. Emmons, calling it the “Lucky Jack” project. Mt. Emmons is believed to hold one of the world’s largest deposits of molybdenum and is predicted to have 22 million tons of high-grade molybdenum ore and 220 million tons of low-grade molybdenum ore—more than the Henderson mine or Climax mine.
Since taking over the property, the companies have announced their intent to attempt to explore the ore body through the existing Keystone mine’s tunnel, along with some surface drilling.
However, the companies say the existing Keystone mine tunnel is no longer safe and are proposing to dig a second tunnel. That tunnel, which is considered an amendment to the original plan, was approved by the state last month.
Even with the state’s approval, the project still must meet requirements in two sets of local government regulations—the Town of Crested Butte’s watershed protection ordinance and the Gunnison County Land Use Resolution. The town’s ordinance is currently being revamped and the town has a moratorium in place to ensure no projects in the watershed will commence until the rules are updated.
Gunnison County planning director Joanne Williams says she believes the new tunnel will spark county Land Use Resolution oversight and she has met with Lucky Jack officials for a pre-application meeting. “It will trigger a permit process,” Williams says, although the county has not determined if it will be a minor or major impact project. A major impact process would require the approval of the Gunnison County Commissioners to proceed. She says the determination will likely be made this week.
If approved, the new tunnel would be built near the existing Keystone drift and would eventually access the old tunnel at an existing bulkhead, which is holding back contaminated waters. Miners would tap into the bulkhead to relieve the water pressure and install new pipe to divert the water to the existing Lucky Jack Water Treatment facility. The miners would then use the existing tunnel to access old drilling stations and take core samples.
According to documentation provided to Gunnison County, approximately 12 miners working in two shifts will dig the tunnel with explosives, underground trucks and loaders.
The mine’s developers say the tunnel will generate 27,000 cubic yards of waste rock, which will be housed at temporary site near the new tunnel’s entrance. It will then be transported by four workers using heavy equipment to a permanent 1.8-acre repository site, which will be built with a clay liner to prevent potential acid leaking into ground and surface water. According to the documents, mine workers will test the rock four times to determine if the waste material will generate acid.
In addition, mine developers are seeking to improve the road to the mine, install a culvert at the new tunnel’s entrance, install utilities for the tunnel and construct an explosives storage area.
Mine developers say that the new tunnel represents prospecting. “The approval that we received with DRMS was for exploration only,” Tagami says. “Our access drift is there for exploration.”
However, HCCA representatives say the new tunnel goes beyond the scope of prospecting to mine development, which would trigger more state oversight and a public process. “The state mining law doesn’t allow mining companies to avoid public input and environmental review by simply calling their development activities prospecting,” says Jeff Parsons, senior attorney with Western Mining Action Project, who filed the protest.
Salter agrees. “We see this as an attempt to start building this mine in a piecemeal fashion,” he says. He says plans for a new tunnel are strikingly similar to a planned secondary access drift proposed by Cyprus-Amax in 1998, which would have helped with ventilation and de-watering of the proposed molybdenum mine. He says the idea that the tunnel is being constructed for exploratory drilling “doesn’t quite make sense. It doesn’t quite track truthful.”
Tagami says he’s unsure of which study HCCA is referring to but says a secondary access drift previously studied was in an entirely different area. “It was not in the same location at all,” he says.
Salter says HCCA expects to hear whether the state board will consider its protest within the next couple weeks. If the board will not consider it, he expects HCCA will consider filing suit in district court. In addition, a lawsuit may be on the horizon if the mine reclamation board agrees with the state’s approval of the new tunnel.