Battle in the Butte

Will mining spoil a Colorado town’s pristine landscape?

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Main Street, Crested Butte, Colorado

Credit: Nathan Bilow

Through a window of her home in Crested Butte, Colo., Glo Cunningham has a clear view of snow-capped Mt. Emmons, shrouded in clouds. Cunningham, director of the Crested Butte Mt. Heritage Museum, and other residents of the town affectionately call the mountain the Red Lady, because of the way it glows nearly scarlet when the light catches it just so. But lately it's what beneath the 12,392-foot-high peak that has her seeing red.

There lies one of the world's richest deposits of molybdenum, a mineral that strengthens metal alloys used to make an array of products, from construction equipment to aircraft and car parts. Today, molybdenum is in high demand, and two companies—Kobex Resources, Ltd., of Vancouver, British Columbia, and U.S. Energy Corp. of Riverton, Wyo.—are developing plans to mine 6,000 tons of the mountain's ore each day for at least a decade.

That prospect has alarmed environmentalists and others in Crested Butte, a turn-of-the-century silver-mining town that has become a tourist destination popular for skiing, fishing, and other outdoor recreation. In 1974, it was designated a National Historic District and this year one of the National Trust's Dozen Distinctive Destinations (see page 12).

Industrial truck traffic could overwhelm the community, says Bob Salter, mineral resources director for the High Country Citizens' Alliance, a conservation group. Another group, the Red Lady Coalition, hopes to buy out the mining companies' interest and end the possibility of mining in Crested Butte.

"This is the fourth time we've had this fight," says Cunningham, an original member of the citizens' alliance, founded the first time mining was proposed at Mt. Emmons, in 1977. Then, local activists stalled the planned mine until the early 1980s, when a glut on the global market sent the price of molybdenum plummeting. The issue arose twice more but never became a serious threat. Since 2001, however, the price has climbed from less than $3 per pound to more than $30.

The mining companies have been helped by an 1872 law designed to spur economic development in the West. The law prevents federal agencies from denying permits for mines on environmental or other grounds, and it has never been revised. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in November that would update the law to balance mining interests against other considerations, but at press time, the measure seemed unlikely to pass the Senate.

Water pollution tops the list of mine opponents' concerns, and they don't have to look far for examples of what could go wrong. An earlier mine on Mt. Emmons caused damage when the tailing ponds, which store waste material, collapsed and drained into a creek. The owners of the mine were required to build a water treatment plant that is still in operation. Just 10 miles away is a different mine that was named a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2005.

The current proposal for the molybdenum mine, which would be about three miles from Crested Butte, includes a nearby mill and tailings deposit at the headwaters of two creeks. Perry Anderson, a spokesperson for the mining companies, says the existing treatment plant on Mt. Emmons will ensure that water coming off the mountain is clean. In addition, he says, new technologies will minimize the risk of contamination.

Opponents question whether the existing treatment plant would be adequate, noting that the new mine would be much larger than the old one. Salter says research has shown that even with modern techniques, water pollution is virtually inevitable. Contaminated water could kill or drive away the mountain's wildlife—including elk, deer, black bear, and beaver—and hurt the farms and ranches downstream.

Outside Crested Butte, however, some residents are cautiously hopeful that a mine could bring much-needed economic stability without spoiling the environment. "It's tough in Gunnison County," says Mark High, a seventh-grade history teacher, of the less affluent areas outside Crested Butte. "I see a lot of kids who go through our system go off to college and they don't come back because there isn't a lot of opportunity around here." He feels better about the prospect of a mine, he says, knowing that environmentalists in Crested Butte would keep close tabs on it.

The mine would create some 250 jobs that would each pay around $70,000 a year—far more than most positions in tourism. Still, it's unclear how many mining jobs would go to locals. The companies have set a goal of hiring 85 percent of their workforce from within the county, but few residents have experience in mining, which has become a highly skilled occupation.

A bigger question is whether tourism and mining can coexist. "This is not an either-or proposition," Anderson argues. "Our mine is not coming in here to destroy or replace anything." In fact, he says, Crested Butte has "a real heritage of mining and ranching" that is worth preserving. "Today we're watching that heritage vanish," he says, as second-home buyers flock to the town.

Denis Hall, a writer who has lived in Crested Butte for 40 years, has reached the opposite conclusion. People come for the pristine natural environment, he says: "Tourists don't want to visit a place that is an industrial zone." Barbara Pahl, director of the National Trust's mountains/plains office in Denver, agrees. "Hard-rock mining creates a big mess," she says. "It could destroy the tourism."

Considering the scene outside her window, Cunningham sums up why she has fought proposals to mine Mt. Emmons for the past three decades. "My quality of life is at stake—the small-town community that I love and care about so much," she says. "I don't know any place like this."

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