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Forest Service OK’s operating plan for controversial quarry

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By John Colson

Sopris Sun Correspondent

Federal officials have approved an operating plan for the White Banks Quarry operation at Avalanche Creek, between Carbondale and Redstone, that calls for mining operations to begin as early as May.

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Robert Congdon, a former coal miner who first started work at the White Banks location nearly a quarter century ago, confirmed on Tuesday that it is likely there will be only a minimal amount work done at the mine in May, thanks to the sudden nature of the recent approval from the U.S. Forest Service.

“We’ve worked five years to get the permit,” Congdon said. “It’s dropped into our lap pretty unexpectedly.”

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It will not be until later in the summer, perhaps July or August, before any significant work begins, Congdon said.

The mine is intended to produce marble, alabaster and gypsum.

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According to a document provided by the White River National Forest offices in Glenwood Springs, the quarry is to commence its “development phase” this May, which is to involve “full scale alabaster exploration, development and production, and limited marble exploration and development for mineral classification purposes through May 2019.”

The quarry’s “production phase,” involving full-scale production of all the minerals, is to last through May, 2035, according to the document.

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The approval document also states that, even if the marble is determined to be “a salable mineral” as defined by federal regulations, the WRNF Ranger still will have “discretion” as to whether continued marble production operations can move forward, or whether the quarry will be restricted to “alabaster/gypsum mining operations only.”

The operator of the quarry is listed as the Elbram Stone LLC in Glenwood Springs, which is reported to be leasing the quarry property from Mystic Eagle, which Congdon started in 1991 under prospecting rights granted through Colorado’s 1872 mining law.

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Walt Brown, a Glenwood Springs attorney who was bought into the mine operations several years ago, explained that the two entities actually are made up of the same people, but under different corporate identities for legal reasons.

Popularly known as the Mystic Eagle mine, the quarry was originally known as the White Banks quarry, said Brown, explaining that the original name is the one used by forest service officials.

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The Mystic Eagle name for the mine is derived from a striking carving of an eagle’s head, sculpted out of the solid rock of the mine wall by sculptor Jeremy Russell, at Congdon’s invitation.

The quarrying operations have been opposed by neighboring residents, mostly in the Swiss Village subdivision that sits opposite the quarry site in the Crystal River canyon, who are worried that the mining operation could produce unacceptable levels of noise, dust and other problems.

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Some residents have blamed mining operation in the past for cracking walls and broken windows in their homes.

The Pitkin County government also has been at odds with the mining plans, primarily over concerns expressed by the neighbors and worries about the operation’s effects on area wildlife.

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According to published reports on the mining operation, it has been operated only sporadically since 2003 due to environmental restrictions and legal battles with Pitkin County, the White River National Forest and environmental groups.

The Forest Service court fight mainly was over Congdon’s contention that the mine could only be profitable if operated year-round, while the Forest Service maintained the mine’s operators had to prove the mine contains sufficient marketable minerals to justify year-round operations.

This year’s approval sets up a four-year schedule of operations intended to permit the mine’s operators to prove their claims.

Congdon has long maintained that the mine can produce marble of sufficient quality for sculptors to work with, and he told The Sopris Sun on Tuesday that he expects to be involved in this year’s MARBLE/

marble symposium, which takes place in July and August in the historic mining town of Marble at the head of the Crystal River Valley.

“We’ll definitely have a presence there,” he said.

Congdon still is the manager of the mine, Brown said.

“He’s the manager and the guy in charge of things,” Brown declared, adding that right now Congdon is putting together an operations plan that will be reviewed by an engineer with the WRNF.

“I think all he wants is to find out what’s planned and when it’s planned,” Brown commented about the engineer’s interest. Brown added that all the work at the mine is to be underground initially, which he hoped would alleviate concerns among the neighbors about noise and other problems.

“It’s going to be slow work at first,” Brown predicted. “I think it’s going to be a small operation for at least 10 years.”