Crested Butte celebrates as longest running mine battle in the West nears end

Crested Butte, a former mining town in Colorado, has transformed itself into a thriving destination for outdoor sports, pioneering a new economy. The community have also defeated plans for a new mine after 40-years of struggle…

Published by Denver Post.  o1/10/2016

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CRESTED BUTTE — This end-of-the-road village has spent nearly 40 years
transforming itself from a mining town into a thriving tourist
destination despite the threat of a huge molybdenum mine on the hill
overlooking downtown.

But the final chapter in the longest running mine fight in the West may
soon be written.

Freeport-McMoRan — the world’s largest moly producer and owner of the
Climax Mine near Leadville and the soon-to-shutter Henderson Mine near
Empire — has inked a preliminary deal to permanently remove mining
claims from Mount Emmons and return about 9,000 acres to the Forest
Service. It will also work with Crested Butte to continue treating
tainted water flowing from a long-defunct mine on the mountain.

For decades, every time molybdenum prices peaked, locals raised money
and filed lawsuits to fight a proposed 1,000-worker mine digging 25
million tons of high-grade moly from the belly of beloved Mount Emmons.
The crusade was at times so pitched that residents pledged to lay down
in the middle of Whiterock Avenue to block ore-hauling trucks.

“This fight has defined our community for so long and its been an
amazing sort of rally cry for what it means to be Crested Butte,” said
Glenn Michel, mayor of the 1,500-resident town where a new economy is
anchored in tourism and outdoor recreation in some of Colorado’s most
pristine playgrounds.

In November, Crested Butte voters will be asked to approve use of the
town’s real estate transfer tax to fund a $2 million payment to
Freeport’s Mount Emmons Mining Co. Town leaders soon will visit
Washington seeking bipartisan support for legislation that would
permanently remove the mining claims from 12,343-foot high Mount Emmons,
known as the Red Lady thanks to the pink hue it takes on as alpenglow
dances across the snowy slope above downtown.

“This is a pretty cool Colorado solution where the town of Crested Butte
and a globally traded mine can come together and find a solution and go
forward with it,” Michel said. “If we pull this off, it’s going to be
something very special that’s occurred.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, said he would
sponsor the legislation in the next session.

“This agreement represents a commonsense, collaborative, Colorado
solution,” Bennet said. “We have been working with Freeport and the
community on how best to solidify this agreement into law, and we look
forward to working with the rest of the delegation to make sure that
happens.”

The tongue-twisting molybdenum has a very high melting point and very
low expansion when heated, making it a valued steel hardener used in
airplanes, furnaces, industrial motors, smoke detectors, air bags and
light filaments.

The molybdenum ore body buried inside Mount Emmons — perhaps 25 million
tons of high-grade molybdenum ore and 220 million tons of lower-grade
ore — was discovered in 1976. The next year, Denver-based U.S. Energy
Corp. leased its mining claims on Mount Emmons to American Metals at
Climax — known as AMAX — and began planning to mine.

Miners had stopped pulling lead and zinc from U.S. Energy’s Keystone
Mine on Mount Emmons more than a decade before. Crested Butte was
transitioning into a fledgling ski town, filled with an uneasy mix of
out-of-work miners and newcomer hippies.

More than 30 years ago, locals created Vinotok, a fall feast and
festival to rally the disparate tribes of Crested Butte, getting the
miners and hippies to gather for a meal to celebrate the harvest and
transition to winter. The possible end of the mine plan made for an
exceptionally festive Vinotok last week.

Moly mining was never embraced in Crested Butte in the way that it was
in Clear Creek County and Leadville. The High Country Citizens Alliance
in Crested Butte formed in 1977 in response to the proposed mine above
town. The mine plan faded as the price of molybdenum fell in the early
1980s. AMAX, which was running the plant that treated heavy-metal runoff
from the Keystone into Coal Creek, applied to patent claims on Red Lady
in 1992 as the moly market improved. Crested Butte, Gunnison County, the
grassroots Red Lady Coalition and the High Country Citizens Alliance
protested the application and labored to block the mine’s application
for water rights in state court.

In 1999, international mining giant Phelps Dodge acquired AMAX and the
Mount Emmons mining rights.

In 2004, the Bureau of Land Management, which handles mineral leases on
federally managed land, sold AMAX 155 acres — including the Red Lady
Basin — for $5 an acre under the antiquated General Mining Act of 1872.
The town, county and HCCA filed a federal lawsuit protesting the sale.

Lawsuits and appeals flew as Crested Butte attacked the mine’s water
plans and the legality of the BLM’s sale of public land to AMAX. Phelps
Dodge in 2006 transferred the mining properties on Mount Emmons to its
previous owner, U.S. Energy, after a legal battle over the
responsibility for running the Keystone Mine water treatment plant.

In 2007, U.S. Energy and partner Kobex Minerals revived plans for the
mine as molybdenum prices neared historical highs around $45 a pound.
The next year, U.S. Energy partnered with Thompson Creek Metals, the
world’s fifth largest molybdenum producer. That partnership dissolved in
2011.

In 2013, U.S. Energy won preliminary approval from the Forest Service to
develop the mineral deposit on Mount Emmons, reigniting efforts to push
the company out of Red Lady Basin and galvanizing locals aghast at the
idea of round-the-clock mine traffic hauling 6,000 to 12,000 tons of ore
through town every day.

Then the molybdenum market collapsed again and U.S. Energy struggled to
find a partner to help mine Mount Emmons. The company’s financial woes
left locals in Crested Butte worried that it could no longer support the
$1 million annual cost of running the treatment plant filtering heavy
metals watershed above town.

In August 2015, as molybdenum prices hovered around $5 a pound, HCCA,
the town of Crested Butte and Gunnison County submitted a letter to the
Colorado Water Quality Control Division, questioning U.S. Energy’s
ability to keep the plant running.

“We were very concerned they were not going to be able to continue,”
said Alli Melton, the Red Lady program director for what is now the High
Country Conservation Advocates.

Within days of sending that letter, a breach at the Gold King Mine above
Silverton unleashed millions of gallons of toxic sludge into southern
Colorado’s Animas River, turning the river a sickly orange.

Within days of the Gold King disaster, national reports detailed
Colorado’s bounty of abandoned mines swollen with toxic metals. The
Environmental Protection Agency began talking about listing more mine
sites across southern Colorado on the National Priorities List for
Superfund cleanup.

Freeport acquired U.S. Energy ‘s Mount Emmons mine site in February,
taking on responsibility for the water treatment plant. If U.S. Energy
had gone bankrupt, the operation of plant and Keystone Mine cleanup
would have reverted to the previous owner of the Mount Emmons claims:
Freeport-McMoRan.

“I think Gold King kind of spurred conversations between the companies
and the EPA. It was a really interesting time for us,” Melton said.

Mount Emmons Mining in the spring approached Crested Butte’s town
leaders with a plan. The company, which never actually mined on Mount
Emmons, offered to sell its mining claims and work with local leaders on
a long-term plan for maintaining the water treatment plant.

“As the previous owner of the site and water treatment plant, Mount
Emmons wanted to ensure sustained operation of the water treatment plant
that discharges to Coal Creek,” said Freeport spokesman Eric E. Kinneberg.

First, the company said it would prefund two years of operation of the
water treatment plant. And second, if the town came up with $2 million,
Freeport said it would ask the federal government to withdraw all the
unpatented mining claims from the mountain, permanently removing any
chance of a mine on Red Lady.

In the Sept. 6 memorandum of understanding, Freeport and the town said
they understand the deal is “only a first step in a long-term
relationship,” and they they will work on other agreements.

High Country Conservation Advocates chief Brett Henderson called the
agreement a monumental shift from decades of failed negotiations with
U.S. Energy.

“It was sort of trench warfare with previous owners,” his colleague
Melton said, “and for the first time, there’s a path forward and it’s
collaborative.”

As High Country Conservation Advocates maps future projects, the General
Mining Law of 1872 is a target. Oil and gas developers have to divert a
portion of their revenues into funds that help clean up after accidents.
Mining companies don’t have to do that.

Building a pool of money for mine reclamation is crucial, said Melton,
who hopes the success of HCCA can bolster other mine cleanup efforts
around the state.

The Crested Butte crusade to beat back the mine should serve as an
example for other communities, Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan
Houck said.

“This is a joint effort of federal, state and local governments —
supported by citizens and citizen groups — that is respectful of private
property rights, mindful of public health, safety and welfare,” Houck
said, “and ultimately will unknot a thorny issue in a manner not only
productive for the local community but also a model for other actions in
our state.”

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