LS: Speaking of Science Column October 27, 2008

Mining is in Colorado’s backyard

Few people realize the importance of mining in our everyday lives. Let’s review a few facts about how much mined material we use and how much of it is mined right here in Colorado.

Look at the baby illustration. Every American born will need nearly 4 million pounds of minerals, metals and fuel in a lifetime. Look at just a few of these: the lead, the zinc, the coal, the natural gas. Many people forget that our quality of life and high standard of living are dependent on mining.

The mining industry has always been under close scrutiny, often as a bad actor. Who wants a mine next door? Most would probably follow the NIMBY cliche: Not In My Back Yard. However, prospectors, geologists and miners must locate a mine where they find the mineral. You don’t have a choice of location as one does when picking a site for a factory or a plant. Yet we must continue to mine if we are going to enjoy our way of life.

Last year, the value of raw non-fuel mining production in the U.S. was $68 billion. Non-fuel minerals mined in Colorado in 2007 had a value of almost $2 billion. Colorado was first in the nation in the production of molybdenum, fourth in the nation in the production of gold, seventh in coal and ninth in industrial minerals such as sand and gravel.

The Henderson Mine near Idaho Springs, Climax Molybdenum Co., a subsidiary of the Newmont mining conglomerate, produced 40 million pounds of molybdenum valued at $1.1 billion. The biggest recent mining news in Colorado is the announcement by Newmont of plans to reopen the famous Climax Mine on Fremont Pass near Leadville. This ore body was discovered in 1879 and mining commenced in 1915.

It has been shut down since 1995.

Colorado’s gold production, valued last year at $185 million, was largely from the Cripple Creek-Victor area and the Cash Mine near Boulder.

Since 1864, more than 1.3 billion tons of coal have been produced in Colorado. Of the 36 million tons of coal mined in the state last year, 3 percent was utilized for power production right here in Colorado. The coal industry employs more than 2,000 people. A large portion of that coal is mined in the North Fork Valley. Constraints of existing rail line capacity, particularly the Moffat Tunnel, tend to limit coal production in the Paonia-Somerset coal fields. Eight counties produce coal. In descending order of their production, most of it comes from Delta, Routt, Moffat, Gunnison and Rio Blanco counties.

A significant amount of gypsum, primarily used in wallboard, is mined and processed in the town of Gypsum. You drive by the plant on Interstate 70. Half of its production is used in Colorado.

Because of a lack of milling facilities in Colorado, no uranium or vanadium was produced in 2007. Only one mill is in operation — in Blanding, Utah.

However, anticipating the new interest in nuclear power and with the escalating price of uranium, a record number of 9,300 claims were staked this past year.

This gives a thumbnail sketch, not only of the importance of mining in today’s expanding technological world, but also of how important mining is to our home state.

You still don’t want a mine in your backyard?

What if a company spokesman knocked on your door one of these days and said geologists had found a significant mineral deposit under your land, that it had an estimated worth of $500 million and if you would permit the location of a mine there, they would offer you a 5 percent royalty on all production?

Wow — potentially $25 million.

You might change your mind.

Colorado mining statistics are from May 2008 issue of “Mining Engineering.”

Bob Beverly is a retired chemical engineer who has done research and development work in oil shale, uranium and other metal-extraction processes for more than 45 years. He pioneered many environmental reclamation projects in the mining and mineral processing field with Union Carbide’s Mining and Metals Division.

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