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Is this an April Fool’s joke?

Column by Hal Walter

Mining – May 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine –

I HAVE TO ADMIT, when Bob Gomez called and left a message in mid-March about a proposed open-pit mica mine on a 40-acre parcel in the middle of his three-square-mile residential area, I thought that someone was playing an early April Fool’s joke on me. And a bad one at that.

The entire story sounded ludicrous, almost suspiciously elaborate.

Check out the facts. Arizona’s Tonto Apache Tribe is planning to mine mica, on 40 acres atop Poncha Pass. The plan is to dig a 10-acre open pit to access an ore body 230 feet below the surface.

And to make it even better, the mining operation will require a well that produces 500 gallons per hour. Yeah, and just remember, there are people in Denver wanting San Luis Valley ice-water, too.

My first question: Isn’t that against the covenants? It turned out that Bob and neighboring landowners had formed a homeowners association with the sole purpose of bringing underground power to all the properties.

While they wanted to maintain the view by burying the power lines, it apparently did not cross their minds to limit a few other undesirable activities like hanging out laundry, parking defunct vehicles and, perhaps, maybe certain obnoxious activities like raising chickens and open-pit mining.

Gate to proposed mine site
Gate to proposed mine site

Well, it’s on their minds now. Gomez and homeowners have organized to battle the proposed mine, and have posted a website (www.saveponchapass.org) to bolster their cause. They cite visual and noise pollution, as well as toxic dust, as major reasons for opposing the mine. They also list damage to ├Žsthetic values and impact on wildlife as possible negative effects.

And they are right. Mines just aren’t pretty, clean, or healthy to the landscape or critters that live near then, including people. Plus, even to a blundering economics student like me, it just doesn’t make any fiscal sense. It’s not like they want to dig for gold or platinum here.

We’re talking about mica, a relatively low-value commodity.

Mica is used to make facial beauty powders, fertilizers, and wallboard, not exactly high-dollar commodities. From what I can glean from the Internet, mica ranges in value from 50 cents to $10 a pound for high-grade materials. Compare these prices to gold at over $300 an ounce and platinum at nearly $550 per ounce and you can see that they’ll have to dig an awful lot of mica to make any kind of mining operation financially worthwhile. I can’t imagine the price of the raw ore would cover the costs of real-estate, mine development, production and transportation.

WELL, IT MAY BE A LITTLE LATE to draw up covenants, and they’d probably be tough to enforce anyway, but maybe Bob and his neighbors can find some help in other rules.

First off, the area is zoned for recreational and residential use by the county. This means Tonto must get a variance in order to mine the property. I can’t imagine any county commissioner would go against the local constituency to OK a permit like this for people from out of state. It doesn’t make any political sense.

And then there’s the water. I don’t know how Tonto could obtain a permit for these types of water demands during this current drought. My “domestic well permit” that came with my 35 acres allows me to water livestock and to irrigate one acre. The Tonto Mine would require 500 gallons an hour for 25 years. That’s 15.6 million gallons of water over a quarter century. Even if the state actually was foolish enough to grant the permit, which I can’t imagine would ever happen, I don’t see how they could possibly get enough water without drilling all the way to Gary Boyce’s closed basin aquifer near Crestone. They will run out of water before they run out of mica.

And then there’s the issue of transportation. Hauling mica ore requires heavy trucks and as far as I know there is no mica mill in Salida. This means long hauls and permits from the state. The diesel bill alone will eat them alive trying to truck this ore to market. And by the way, the additional heavy truck traffic will have negative effects on the highway, traffic and local travel which won’t make local taxpayers happy, especially during tourist season.

IT’S IRONIC TO ME that this mine is proposed by a group of Native Americans. I always thought the spirituality of Native Americans was tied into a close symbiotic association with the land. The idea of their own people tearing open a mountainside to make powders to tint people’s faces must have Cochise and Geronimo rolling over in their graves.

Another Apache irony is a parallel to a small mining operation that actually operated for a short while in Leadville more than a decade ago.

The Apache Mine, a pyrite operation named not after its owners but after a precambrian rock formation, operated near the south end of town on Colorado 24 in the late 1980s. The idea was to mine old tailings for pyrite to sell to bottle manufacturers as a pigment to make brown glass.

It’s a long story but basically it ended badly. As with all mining operations, eventually the market realities forced worker lay-offs. The mine closed down and residents were left with piles of tailings and some ugly old metal shacks at the south end of town. So much for digging for low-value commodities; the economics often just don’t pan out. Perhaps the Apache Mine should serve as an omen for the Tonto tribe.

My advice for Bob and other residents of Poncha Pass is to keep up what they are doing. Find every angle to fight this thing. Hire a lawyer and draw up covenants for your subdivision. Oppose any county zoning variances. File objections with the state water commission, the Colorado Department of Transportations and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In general, make sure the people who want to mine this land have to jump through every possible hoop. They can’t be looking at a very big profit margin, and every hoop-hop takes away a little more of it, making an already relatively invaluable commodity even less valuable.

Lastly, consider the idea that Tonto may be pulling an April Fool’s joke on everyone. Wouldn’t it be something if the mine proposal was a bluff to see if adjacent landowners would put up some ungodly amount of cash for the land? Actually, to me, that seems like a more logical business plan than trying to operate a mica mine for the next 25 years.

Hal Walter has mined words from a 35-acre precambrian rock farm in the Wet Mountains for longer than he cares to remember.