“I’ve been doing this openly for 30 years”
By Toni Todd
(Reporters note: The story below was reported using a video tape of the September 27 public hearing).
Activity at the Bullion King Mine in Irwin has drawn the attention of Colorado’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS).
Never mind that the activity in question has been going on there for nearly three decades. Anthony Corona, who owns the mine, has been slowly developing the site since 1989. Those improvements, however, appeared to DRMS to be more than cosmetic, leading officials to believe Corona intends to re-open and operate the Bullion King. He denies that.
Corona’s work at the Bullion King was officially halted at a public hearing held September 27 by the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board (CMLRB). The board voted unanimously, yet begrudgingly, that Corona had failed to obtain a reclamation permit as required by law. They imposed a civil penalty of $60,000. That penalty, however, was far less than the $300,000 recommended by the DRMS. Further, Corona will get all but $10,000 of that back if he gets approval for a permit. He has 180 days to comply.
Corona, a retired real estate developer, lives in San Pedro, Calif. He first leased the mine property in 1989 and purchased it in 1993. Corona is an 80-year-old Korean War veteran who visits the mine site every summer.
He’s well-versed on the history of the mine, which he finds fascinating, and describes his exploratory activities there as “number one on my bucket list.”
Gunnison County assistant community development director Neal Starkebaum said he understands the mine is a hobby for Corona, and that the would-be explorer has no intention of actually extracting silver from the Bullion King. But the DRMS suspects otherwise.
“The board has determined that it’s under development,” said DRMS minerals specialist Dustin Czapla. “He’s opening shafts, preparing to operate. He’s not saying that, but the division suspects that he is.” DRMS reports describe the Bullion King as an “unpermitted operation that has created significant mining-related disturbance…. Prospecting has been initiated prior to obtaining a reclamation permit or filing notice of intent.”
However, no silver has been taken from the mine since Corona took ownership, and he swears none will be.
DRMS officials’ greatest concern is water quality. Water is being pumped from the mine shafts into holding ponds, which appear to be leaching into a nearby unnamed stream. That stream leads to Ruby Anthracite Creek, which feeds the Paonia watershed. The creek has also been diverted by a few feet to flow around the mine-entry shaft.
The state’s public hearing on the matter was videotaped, and can be viewed at on the Colorado Department of Natural Resources MLRB Youtube channel. That’s where the following information was obtained.
At the hearing, Czapla said the DRMS had inspected the site twice and issued two cease and desist orders, both of which were ignored.
Czapla provided an array of photos showing extensive development at the mine, including new buildings, newly reopened shafts, a water and septic system, the diverted creek, piping that leads to the ponds, and a new hydraulic apparatus designed to lower people into the main shaft. Czapla suggested Corona’s failure to respond to any correspondence, his lack of a permit, and his failure to heed the cease and desist notices justify the $300,000 fine.
But to hear Corona tell his story, it’s not what it looks like, and the CMLB seemed receptive to that notion.
“My wife thinks I’m crazy for spending this much money up there,” Corona said at the hearing. “I’m not too sure she’s wrong.”
Corona insisted he had not received any of the DMRS correspondence, nor did he see any of the cease and desist notices posted in plain view at the site. The only letter he received was the one requiring him to attend the public hearing.
“July 20 was my first visit and my first knowledge of this,” Corona said, referring to a visit to the mine from Starkebaum. Czapla stopped by July 31. “I was working on my roads,” he said. “Dustin told me about the posting that I never saw and the letters that I never got.” Corona gave Czapla a thorough tour of the site, showing him the shafts, the ponds, the buildings, and the water system. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said.
“I’m hoping to just explore,” Corona explained. “I’m really not a miner. This probably looks strange to everybody, but I’m after relics. I’m really not interested in the silver. And that’s hard for anybody in Colorado to understand. Everybody thinks I’m trying to get in here and retire and get rich. Well, I’m already retired and I haven’t missed any meals. My intention here is not to mine. I haven’t mined anything. I don’t plan on mining anything. I’m an explorer and I’m finding relics. The best relic I’ve found so far is an ore bucket, which is in the front of my office in California. I’m expecting to find more ore buckets, and steam pumps and all kinds of stuff farther down.”
Corona said development at the Bullion King has been primarily for safety reasons, to keep anyone who wanders onto the property safe and to make it safe for him to go underground and explore the shafts. He gave board members a detailed explanation of the work he’s done to access the different levels of the mine and to explore the shafts safely.
Corona had no explanation for why he hadn’t received any DMRS correspondence or why he never saw the cease and desist postings at the site. “I’ve never spoken to Dustin until he came up to the mine. The only letter I got was the one asking me to come here,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. I’m only at the mine maybe 10 days a year.” He said he plans a single project each summer, then brings family and friends up to help him. “I have to get there before July 4,” he said. “The crowd comes from Denver and they bring teenage kids and let them loose, and they’ve vandalized heavily up there over the years.”
He diverted the stream when he opened the mine-entry shaft. That shaft now sports what looks like a giant yellow metal cone-shaped hat, something Corona said he found on the property that works perfectly to keep the opening safe from the curious who might wander onto the property. He explained that in order to access that shaft safely, he had to divert the creek around it, so the shaft wouldn’t be inundated with water.
In addition to the ponds, which were there when Corona bought the mine, there was concern about a waste-rock pile on the property, possibly contributing to contaminants leaching into the stream. Corona insisted he hasn’t added to the pile. He’s only used the crushed rock that was already there to improve the roads on and around his property.
Czapla confirmed that the pile has actually shrunk.
“The snow gets 15 to 20 feet high there in winter,” said Corona. “That waste-rock pile has been leaching from snowmelt for the past 100 years.”
He also tried to dispel concern about the ponds. “The ponds were already there,” he said. “I just use them.”
But the ponds are a problem. Czapla explained that pumping water from deep underground into the ponds creates a water quality risk. He said iron stains around the pipe leading into a pond are a common indicator of acidic water, emphasizing the importance of water quality tests, which are a part of the permitting process. He said the ponds may be leaching into the nearby creek.
Czapla’s DRMS colleague, Russ Means, confirmed this. “We’re worried the ponds could fail and empty into the creek,” he said. “That’s why we felt so strongly that we need a permit for this site.”
“I never had the first clue that I’d need a permit,” said Corona. “It was a permitted mine. It’s a patented mine. So, I never had any idea that I was doing anything wrong. The first time I heard I was doing anything wrong was when I heard it from the man from the county [Starkebaum]. I didn’t think I needed to get permission to do something that’s already been done there. I’ve been doing this openly for almost 30 years.”
Neighbor Norman Monte spoke on behalf of Corona. Monte has helped his friend with cleanup, hauling many loads of trash and other junk left there over the years, including several 1950s-vintage vehicles that were, he said, “all tore up.”
“There were open holes,” said Montes. “Art went in and covered them up. Nothing has been taken out of that mine. All he’s done is clean up an eyesore somebody else built and I don’t see why he should be penalized for cleaning up an eyesore.”
Czapla insisted that, whether the mine is operational or not, activities there meet the statutory definition of mine development, and by law, require a permit. He expressed suspicion over Corona’s exploratory intentions. “The amount of money being spent here seems a little odd,” he said.
“What you see there in terms of development is a building covering the main shaft and a building to house my water system,” said Corona, “and a building to put my equipment away because I can’t leave anything out. So, it might look like a lot of development, but it’s needed to protect what I’ve done.”
Corona has until late March, 2018 to acquire a permit for his project at the Bullion King.