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If not in our backyard, then whose?

Essay by Ed Quillen

Mining – May 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN I FIRST HEARD about the mica quarry proposed near the summit of Poncha Pass this spring, it sounded like a story with all the great ingredients: New West, as in homeowners on 20- or 40-acre lots that sat at least 20 miles out of town, and they were less than thrilled about living near a mine. Old West, as in mining and perhaps a few local jobs that paid a decent wage without requiring a graduate degree. Really Old West, as in Tonto Apache, because that tribal government planned to develop and operate the mine.

As things have developed, it’s unlikely that the Poncha Pass mica mine will turn into much of a story at all, at least in the next year or two. There are a few shallow trenches on top, and only one test-drilling core has been taken on the 40-acre mine site. It went down about 250 feet, and the core samples indicated a mica deposit down to 238 feet.

That’s promising, but one sample doesn’t indicate the size of the deposit. They need to drill about a dozen such holes to determine the extent and character of the deposit, then come up with a mining plan, and then apply for various permits from agencies like the state Mined Land Reclamation Board. Things aren’t going to proceed until there’s a mining plan, and there won’t be a mining plan until they know more about what sits underground.

For a non-geologist like me, it came as something of a surprise to learn, a few years ago, that “ore” is an economic term, not a geologic term. Geology can tell you the size and composition of mineral deposits. A deposit is “ore” if it can be mined profitably, and that depends on markets for the product, technology (such as the recovery rate), labor costs, transportation costs, and a host of other factors. When molybdenum was $6 a pound, Bartlett Mountain above Climax was ore; when moly fetches only $1.50 a pound, that same mountain is just a deposit.

So that’s where I began to assuage my curiosity about this proposed mica mine. Like everyone who’s ever picked up a shiny rock (an activity that I think is still legal on public lands), I’ve seen mica, which is a generic layman’s term for 37 minerals formally known as muscovite, paragonite, phlogopite, lepidolite, biotite, etc. Their chemical composition varies (they’re all “hydrous aluminum silicates”), but they have similar properties — they’re translucent or transparent, they resist heat and chemicals, they don’t conduct electricity, and they’re flat and thin.

Around here anyway, mica usually comes in tiny flakes that shimmer in the sun, but sometimes there are sheets of thumbnail size or bigger, packed in layers that you can peel off with a pocketknife.

THE MORE-OR-LESS TRANSPARENT sheet stuff was known as “isinglass” to our grandparents, and was in common household use — the coal stove at my grandfather’s homestead in Wyoming had a hand-sized window in the door to the firebox, and since there wasn’t even electricity there, let alone television, we visiting grandchildren sometimes sat around on winter nights and watched the fire through the isinglass.

Odds are that there’s other sheet mica in your house; the panels that hold the heating coils inside your toaster are almost certainly made of mica, as are the innards of the larger capacitors in your TV, stereo, or computer. Most sheet mica today comes from India.

This mine didn’t propose to extract sheet mica. Instead, it would produce flake mica, which can leave the mill in two varieties — “wet-ground” and “dry-ground,” depending on how it’s processed.

Dry-ground mica is a component of house paint and drywall mud. Wet-ground mica puts the sparkle in some automobile paints and cosmetics, and it strengthens some plastics.

So, mica is not some exotic, toxic substance. It’s part of our daily lives. It’s so much a part that in the supply chain, it’s an industrial commodity, and not an expensive one. In 2000, the United States produced 112,000 tons of ground mica, valued at $37.5 million — which works out to less than 17¢ a pound. Most of it comes from North Carolina.

Ground mica is a cheap, bulk commodity, and Poncha Pass is a long way from places that make paint, cosmetics, or drywall joint compound. That might not matter if the railroad still served this area, since railroads are good at hauling cheap bulk commodities like coal and wheat. But the nearest railhead would be Alamosa, 60 miles away, and even then, where’s the nearest market? California? Missouri?

MICA JUST DIDN’T STRIKE ME as something where truck transportation would pay. But I was wrong. There’s an operating mica mine and mill in Taos County, New Mexico. The mica-bearing rock is mined at a quarry between Taos and Penasco; it is trucked to a mill in Velarde, which sits about a dozen miles north of Española, that town we all love to joke about (as in “Did you hear about the earthquake that hit Española and did $5 million worth of improvement?”). The nearest railhead is Santa Fé, nearly 50 miles away, and I don’t know whether the company ships from there, but as nearly as I could tell, shipping is totally by truck.

Yet this appears to be a profitable enterprise.

This operation, owned by Oglebay Norton Specialty Minerals of Cleveland, Ohio, is not without controversy. A proposal to expand the quarry has drawn opposition from the Picuris Pueblo, which mines clay for pottery in the same area (when mica weathers, it becomes clay).

Down in Velarde where the mill separates mica from the country rock with a flotation process, residents complain about the noise and dust as the plant processes 15 tons of ore every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That much I gleaned from newspapers and the company’s website. But I wanted to know more. Just how noisy was this mill? How much rock is left after you extract the mica, and what do the tailings look like? Do the people who work in the mill think it’s a safe place? (Not that they’ll tell you if you ask directly, but if you sit around the right bar at the right time of day, you may overhear enough to know.)

Velarde isn’t all that far from Salida — judging by the map, I could be there and back in a day, mostly because I wouldn’t be going through Truchas where I always take a wrong turn — so I called the mill and asked about provisions for taking a journalist on a tour.

The woman I talked to acted as though I were an agent of the Green Liberation Army, bent on spying on behalf of saboteurs. I’d have to talk to the foreman, she said, who happened to be on vacation during the time I’d have for visiting New Mexico, and a call to corporate headquarters in Cleveland was just as discouraging.

Sometimes the mining industry is its own worst enemy. People are naturally suspicious of operations that seem to have something to hide. I just wanted to learn something about mica mining — whatever the controversies are in Taos County, I don’t have a dog in that fight.

At any rate, this corporate reticence kept me from going to Velarde, since if I did go, the only people sure to talk to me would be those who didn’t like the mine and mill.

And I wouldn’t need to drive 200 miles for that. Bob Gomez offered to come by my house, though we ended up meeting at Bongo Billy’s.

I’ve known Bob for so long that I can’t remember when I met him, though it was at least a decade ago and likely at a meeting of the old PC user group, the Chaffee County Computer Club where Bob was an officer and I edited the newsletter (SCUM — which allegedly stood for Salida Computer Users’ Monthly).

Bob, who’s got a house on 20 acres near the top of Poncha Pass, had a host of objections to the mining proposal. He pointed out that he’s not opposed to mining in general — he moved to this area 25 years ago to work underground at Climax.

ONE ISSUE BROUGHT UP by him and others is æsthetics, which is a judgment call, since beauty is almost by definition a matter of taste. The Toonschunee Company (the corporate arm of the Tonto Apache) proposed a 50-foot-high metal building for the mill.

Assuming that it was painted so that it wouldn’t glare in the sun, I didn’t see how that would be a problem — the surrounding trees are about that height, and even near the top of the pass, it wouldn’t stick out that much.

And what if it did? Is it going to look that much worse than recent residential construction in that area, which was open land within recent memory?

Is it going to repel tourists coming in from the south? That is, repel any tourists who wouldn’t be repelled a few miles farther down the road, where there’s a hideous Quonset hut at the junction with the Marshall Pass road?

(I respect property rights and believe the owner of that property has every right to put up such a structure. I also believe in free speech, which means I have every right to complain about how tacky it looks.)

Is our tourism industry so fragile that one quarry with a building will send people somewhere else? And on the next bend in the road, there’s an old mine headframe — now a scenic attraction that appeals to photographers, though people may have considered it a noisy eyesore back when it was running.

[Old headframe on Poncha Pass]

But maybe that’s the way to make mining proposals more palatable in our New recreation-oriented, amenities-crazed West. Old mine structures and mills now grace calendars. Maybe mines just need to cloak their steel buildings behind barnboard, and put mock headframes on their roofs. Add a little rustic architecture, and we may be able to hype mines as a real-estate amenity: Forested acreage with stream, pond, cabin, access to National Forest, and historic mine (est. 2002).

BUT IN ANOTHER VEIN, Bob and I joked about tailings disposal: Just haul it to Crestone and start building a pyramid. In Velarde, the company sells it as gravel, and that would make sense around here if there’s a market for the stuff. If not, well, there likely will be someday, and it’s not as though rock piles are out of place in the mountains. I don’t think that’s a real problem in this case.

Dust could be a problem, but there’s no way to tell until there’s a plan for the mine. That’s one reason I wanted to visit Velarde — does the dust escape from the mill, or is it a result of trucking mica ore to the mill and dumping it there? If the latter is the case, then it presumably wouldn’t be an issue here with the mill on the mine site.

Or could it be? Toonschunee announced a need for 500 gallons per hour for its mill, and it’s unlikely that any well near the top of a pass could produce that amount of water. Or maybe they meant that 500 gph would run through the mill, but in modern mining, almost all that water is reused, so the actual water needs would be much lower. Or maybe they’d have to put the mill downhill where more water was available, which would increase the dust possibilities — but who’s to know without seeing a mine plan?

How much truck traffic would the mine engender? That’s another thing I hoped to find out in Velarde, but even if they were running at 50 tons per day and hauling it to a mill down the hill, a semi can haul at least 20 tons, so we’re looking at perhaps three extra big trucks on Poncha Pass each day — not really enough to matter.

Noise? Would it be that noisy a mile or two away? And how much quiet are we entitled to? If you bought a parcel of serene, pastoral rural land, do you have a right to expect it to stay that way?

THAT SEEMS TO BE near the heart of so many modern controversies. I have to say that I was less than pleased a few years ago when the Salida school district, in need of more classroom space, leased the St. Joseph facilities across the street from my house. What had been a quiet neighborhood became one with twice-daily traffic jams and hordes of obnoxious triple-parking parents.

I could argue that I bought this house (several years after the parochial school had closed) with the understanding that it was on a quiet street, so what right did the school district have to disturb my peace? But on the other hand, we need schools, and they have to be somewhere, and I just happened to be near that somewhere.

There’s the crux of the arguments. We want or need certain things, and they have to come from somewhere. And we live in a society where NIMBYism — the Not In My Back Yard syndrome — is a common and growing attitude. We want electricity but we don’t want the power plants or the high-voltage lines near our property. We want paved streets and concrete foundations, but don’t want to live near the gravel pits that produce the necessary aggregates. We want to dispose of our trash, but we don’t want a landfill nearby.

Yet all of these things have to be somewhere. If we want products made with mica, then there have to be mica mines and mills.

BUT WHERE? Bob has a very real concern. Suppose the mica mine went in and it was profitable, so profitable that the company expanded. Bob’s parcel began shortly after World War I as a homestead on the public domain, and has since been subdivided. Homesteaders got surface rights, but not mineral rights. Thus somebody else — like Toonschunee — could file for the mineral rights under Bob’s house, and would have the legal right to develop those rights. And there’s not much Bob could do about it.

So he and his neighbors have every right to be worried. It’s one thing if there’s a mine a few miles away; it’s another if the mine threatens to swallow your house, and that’s not beyond possibility if the mill is already in place and needs more ore.

But it’s also quite unlikely, given the lack of exploration at the Poncha Pass site. Until they’ve got a better idea of the extent and quality of the deposit, the mica mine is little more than speculation (which, over the years, has probably been the most consistently profitable mining-related activity in Colorado).

[The Poncha Pass neighborhood] [The Poncha Pass neighborhood]

SO FOR THE TIME BEING, the mica mine really isn’t a story, since nobody knows enough about the deposit to conduct an intelligent discussion about mining it.

But it is an issue that raises a good question. Can mining co-exist with our current dominant industries of tourism and rural real-estate development? And if not, will an economy reliant on tourism and real estate commit us to more low-paid service jobs and fewer good blue-collar jobs?

I’d like to think that mines can operate even in our increasingly resort-style economy, because it seems wrong to rip rocks out of the ground somewhere else (perhaps in the Third World where there aren’t the employment and environment standards that we enjoy) in order to serve our wants and needs.

We ought to be able to accept (and minimize) the environmental and other consequences of our consumption. We should be able to reject NIMBYism in favor of MBYIFIYDIRism — My Back Yard Is Fine If You Do It Right — and we should be figuring out how to do it right.

That’s a big challenge, but it’s the most responsible attitude, and one that might be more popular than you’d suspect. This struck me several summers ago, when I had been invited — for reasons that still remain mysterious — to sit on a panel at a community meeting in Colorado Springs. Much of the discussion concerned “How do we preserve our small-town atmosphere?” And I hadn’t seen any to preserve there. (The reason that city is so religious is that preachers warn their flocks that, unless they’re virtuous in this life, they’ll spend eternity on Academy Boulevard.)

But there was also much talk about the quarry scar visible on a ridge north and west of town. When it was my turn to talk, I took my usual obnoxious and contrarian stance, and said Colorado Springs ought to be proud of that scar, because it proved the city wasn’t full of NIMBYs, that people in the Springs used the rock and bore the consequences, instead of trashing somebody else’s view.

I expected to receive ballistic donations of whatever rotten vegetables were in season, but to my astonishment, that statement got a loud and prolonged ovation, and afterwards, people came up and talked to me about that.

The quarry scar was ugly, they said, but they were the ones who had benefited from the products of that quarry over the years, so it was fair that they dwelt with the scar, rather than foist it off on someone else.

That’s a refreshing attitude, but it probably won’t prevail.

For one thing, it’s usually safer to fight industry than to accept it. Although I support preserving blue collar industry in our region — if it’s done right — it’s damned hard to make businesses do things right. And when things go wrong, industries usually have more money for court expenses than residents.

And politicians only seem to make matters worse. The Republicans who presumably support industry often favor lax governmental oversight and wholesale deregulation, which frequently leads to disaster. And disasters inevitably lead to more governmental oversight and renewed regulatory legislation.

Whereas the Democrats tend to favor costly but ineffective regulations that chase American manufacturers into the third world where they don’t have to worry about environmental regulations, worker safety, or paying reasonable wages. And that means industries and workers in the U.S. have to compete with factories elsewhere that seldom adhere to adequate standards for worker and environmental safety.

IF WE WANT TO LIVE in a modern technological world with electric lights, gas heat, packaged food, high-powered automobiles, and clear skies and drinkable water, we need to keep working on making mining and manufacturing safer and cleaner. And we’ll probably do that best if the industry isn’t in East Myanmar.

So in this case I’d like to wait and see what the mine proposal says. Although it’s too soon to tell, this mine may not be all that destructive or disruptive.

But I don’t blame the neighbors for being hostile. There’s a genuine risk that the facility could be unsightly, dusty, and noisy, and it might reduce their property values and aggravate their asthma.

They have a right to know: Is it safe? Will it reduce surrounding property values? Is there enough water for the usage? Can problems like dust and noise be minimized? Can the facility be fenced, camouflaged, or hidden from view to preserve the scenic beauty of the area?

But in our modern world it’s damned hard to evaluate risk. Industries are less than candid; workers are afraid to talk; lawsuits end in non-disclosure agreements.

And it’s even harder to trust the powers that be to evaluate the risks fairly — because fair evaluations don’t spring from a Republican or Democratic perspective, or a New West or Old West bias, or by finding out who has the most money for lawsuits.

— Ed Quillen