Alabaster mine owner sues Forest Service
A battle over a company’s efforts to reopen an alabaster mine south of Carbondale is headed to court.
Elbram Stone LLC sued the U.S. Forest Service and several agency officials Monday over seasonal restrictions and other limitations the company says make it cost-prohibitive to operate.
The company is being represented in the case by the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group that says on its website that it is “dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited and ethical government and (the) free enterprise system.”
The suit points to rights under the nation’s longstanding Mining Law.
It also says that while another law, the Surface Use Act, “allows the Forest Service to manage the surface on unpatented mining claims within the National Forest System, its authority to regulate mining is extremely limited.”
It says the Forest Service has “unlawfully withheld approval of a reasonable plan of operations” at the mine in violation of both laws.
The mine closed about a decade ago while under a different owner. Elbram’s efforts to reopen it have met resistance from Pitkin County, some nearby residents and environmental groups.
One concern has centered on a decline in the number of bighorn sheep in the area of the mine, which is located at the foot of Mount Sopris in the Crystal River Valley.
In August, a Forest Service official reversed a previous agency decision governing future mine operations, saying it failed to justify strict conditions designed to protect the sheep.
The reviewing official said there wasn’t adequate documentation about the impacts of mining operations on the sheep to support conditions such as wintertime limitations on surface activities at the mine, including an outright ban on such activities two months a year.
Another condition required the mine to pay up to $52,500 a year for five years for a monitoring study of sheep in the area, but the reviewing official said the sheep numbers already had been declining when the mine wasn’t operating and the mine shouldn’t be financially responsible for determining why.
The matter was remanded to the district ranger for further action.
Forest officials earlier this month provided the company with a draft decision notice. According to the suit, it said that between Nov. 30 and May 1 of each year, surface use would be limited to miners and owners driving to and from the mine.
Also, the agency would allow only limited exploration for marble the mine also hopes to produce, and its decision would apply for only four years.
Elbram Stone official Walt Brown, a Glenwood Springs attorney, said the limitations make attracting investors and operating the mine impractical.
He said there’s no point allowing the underground mining year-round if the product can’t be removed in the winter.
“If you cut the rock, you’ve got to be able to get it out,” he said.
“... People don’t just buy rock when the Forest Service says they can.”
He also said Forest Service delays have hampered plans to open the mine next month.
Bill Kight, a Forest Service spokesman, said the agency can’t comment on ongoing litigation.