Mt. Emmons mine talks stall over privatization

“We have to go slow to go fast”

By Mark Reaman

Talks are continuing between the parties trying to figure out the best way to eliminate the threat of mining on Mt. Emmons, but a “significant hurdle” has been encountered.

It was reported at Tuesday’s joint meeting between the Gunnison County commissioners and the Crested Butte Town Council that mine owner Freeport-McMoRan is pushing to take some of the mining land on Mt. Emmons out of U.S. Forest Service control and transfer it to the company so it can more quickly address some of the clean-up issues.

Such a move would essentially privatize hundreds of acres where tailings piles, treatment ponds and the water treatment plant are located. Not everyone involved with the negotiations is on board with that idea.

“We had a meeting in Denver Monday and encountered a significant hurdle,” said Crested Butte town attorney John Belkin. “Freeport wants to clean up the site outside of the Forest Service purview. They don’t want to have to deal with the process and oversight of the Forest Service. Some call that privatization. Freeport said they want it transferred to more easily deal with the clean-up. There are obviously issues to be worked out and the best way to structure all of this is being contemplated. It will require untying some big knots. While the meeting was productive, it showed we have some thorny issues to deal with.

“There is a difference of opinion on the best way to handle the clean-up,” Belkin continued. “Some people have concerns with privatization. Freeport probably wouldn’t use that word and instead looks at it as a ‘transfer’ to facilitate the goal. They have real concerns with the Forest Service process.”

Attorney Barbara Green, whom the town has retained to help with the situation, agreed it is an unusual situation for the Forest Service to oversee that kind of clean-up.

“Having this sort of clean-up on Forest Service land is not normal,” Green said. “It is not so much a clean-up as it is work on the ponds, on the ditch and on the waste rock piles in an effort to minimize the pollutants running into the water treatment plant. Freeport is currently in the process of gathering information on the site to analyze their options.”

“The conversations among the parties have been frank and candid and difficult, but they have been focused on problem-solving,” added county attorney David Baumgarten. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we have a willing partner with Freeport-McMoRan.”

Baumgarten reminded the elected officials that the issue encompassed more than just a clean-up. While short-term characterization of the site is a part of the equation since Freeport isn’t yet sure what they own with the mine, he categorized the issues into “four silos.”

The silos include the underlying base idea of a mineral withdrawal to permanently prohibit mining on Mt. Emmons. There is the clean-up and stabilization of the mine site. The elements incorporated into improved and consistent water quality standards for Coal Creek and the long-term future of the water treatment plant or a functional alternative are the last two silos.

“Obviously there are differences on how those at the table would set the priorities,” Baumgarten said. “The conversations will continue and they may be difficult. We may have to go slow to go fast. There are no easy answers here. The ultimate intent is that mining doesn’t occur up there.”

“The roots of the discussions remain how to accomplish a mineral withdrawal while meeting everyone’s needs,” said Green.

“Freeport has never changed its messaging,” said Belkin. “They continue to say they have no interest in mining Mt. Emmons. The current presidential administration adds to the complexity and will make it a challenge to get anything done.”

Green said that everyone who needs to be at the table to get something done is part of the discussions. That includes the mine owner, representatives of the governor and state regulatory agencies, representatives of U.S. Senator Michael Bennet’s office and the High Country Conservation Advocates.

“We have everyone we need as long as we stay in problem-solving mode,” Green told the local officials. “We might be at the point where we just need to take some time and let Freeport gather the information from the site.”

“The issue now is that Freeport would feel better to privatize so as not to have the federal leash on them,” said Baumgarten. “But we say we are more comfortable with that federal leash on them.”

Belkin said the land in question would amount to a couple of hundred acres where the water treatment plants sits and where tailings piles and treatment ponds are located. “It is a small slice of the thousands of acres of unpatented mining claims,” he said.

“But because ‘privatization’ is such a charged word we are still trying to figure it out,” added Green. “The company is saying they want to own the mess that they bought from U.S. Energy and get on with this. The obvious implication of using that word is enormous. The state is there to help and willing to help cut through the knots but is mindful to not do anything contrary to the local desire.”

County commissioner Jonathan Houck pointed out the state had unique leverage with Freeport since the mining company had operations in other parts of Colorado.

“So if everyone is sort of on the same page, what’s the hold-up?” asked Crested Butte mayor Glenn Michel. “What will keep it moving?”

“Trust,” responded Belkin. “Between everyone.”

“Community dialogue is important,” added Green. “It is important for the elected officials to signal the importance of the withdrawal and the stability of the treatment plant to handle pollutants.”

Green suggested a joint letter from the county and town be sent to Freeport signaling the desire to continue negotiations, while acknowledging the mining company’s good work on the site.

“Given the history of this, I don’t have heartburn where we are right now,” said commissioner Phil Chamberland. “Trust is certainly needed. We have moved leaps and bounds in the last year and a half. Let’s all take a breath and slow down and not feel a sense of urgency.”

“This could take a lot of time to totally accomplish,” admitted Michel.

“I have trust in the staff and feel they understand the big picture and are moving accordingly,” said commissioner John Messner.

“It’s important on the local level for us to present a unified front,” said councilman Roland Mason. “We are in the best position we have ever been in. If it takes another two or ten years, it is okay as long as nothing is mined up there.”

“I don’t want to lose the momentum,” said Michel. “We want to keep moving forward. A permanent solution to the mine continues to be the top priority for the Town Council.”

“It is important to let Freeport know we appreciate what they are doing, but we want to keep the foot on the gas,” said Houck. “As David said, we might have to go slow to go fast. We’re in for the long haul.”

HCCA’s Alli Melton agreed that the process could take time. “We are at a sticky point when everyone needs to sit back and access the situation,” she said. “We are all learning together. This is an unprecedented situation. Let’s make sure we take the time to ensure it is done right.”

It was agreed that a joint letter would be drafted and sent to the mining company from the county and town. “I think we all understand that the process will indeed take some time,” Michel concluded.

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