Mining proposal stuns Redstone
REDSTONE — When a national forest official recently told residents of the Redstone area about renewed interest in mining coal up a valley where millions of dollars have been spent on reclamation from a former mine, “It just blindsided everybody,” one resident said.
“Is it not crazy to go up there and start mining again in an area that’s been reclaimed?” Chuck Ogilby, who lives off Colorado Highway 133 north of Redstone, wondered in a recent interview.
The idea seems to have caught White River National Forest officials off guard as well. The forest’s 2002 management plan appears to be largely silent on coal mining, said Scott Snelson, district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. The Mid-Continent Resources mine had closed about a decade earlier up Coal Basin west of Redstone.
“It wasn’t anticipated that we were going to have coal mining activities again, at least in that area,” Snelson said.
“If you think about it, at that time there was no interest, and in fact they were heavy into rehabilitation,” said Wendy Jo Haskins, forest planner for the White River National Forest. “It just wasn’t seen, I believe, at the time as needing to be addressed.”
But recently Raven Ridge Resources, a Grand Junction energy consulting company, inquired with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management about the process for getting a permit to do exploratory work to assess the coal resource up Coal Basin. Raven Ridge is representing an undisclosed client.
The BLM administers federal coal leasing, including beneath land owned by the Forest Service, which has authority over surface matters, including any above-ground impacts from coal mining.
“At this point they haven’t submitted anything, so there’s not much really to say until we actually get a proposal from them,” BLM spokesman David Boyd said.
Still, the prospect of renewed coal-related activities up Coal Basin raised all kinds of questions when Snelson brought up the subject during a meeting with the Crystal Valley Caucus, a group that advises Pitkin County commissioners on matters of interest to Redstone and the surrounding Crystal Valley area.
“The feedback that we got was a lot of questions about scope and scale, and we just don’t know that until we get an actual proposal,” Snelson said.
Raven Ridge executive vice president James Marshall said he’s not currently at liberty to discuss any plans his client might be anticipating.
Raven Ridge voiced an interest in an area west of the reclaimed mine area. But among the questions that arise is whether a new mine would seek to use decommissioned roads for mine access, or attempt to reach underground coal reserves from portals in reclaimed areas.
Boyd said exploratory work usually is low-impact, involving using truck-mounted drilling rigs to obtain core samples. The next step would be to apply for lands to be put into a lease sale, but that would entail major environmental review.
“If it were to get to that point, we’re years and years away from that, and there would be lots of public involvement before that final decision,” Boyd said.
A rich coal history
The history of coal mining in the namesake, 27-square-mile Coal Basin dates back much further than the Mid-Continent era and is intertwined with the history of Redstone itself. Industrialist John Cleveland Osgood first opened a mine that operated from 1900–1909, and he built cottages and an inn in Redstone for workers, plus nearby Redstone Castle for himself. He also built ovens to convert coal to coke used for steelmaking, and they still line Colorado 133 alongside town.
Mid-Continent began operations in Coal Basin in 1956 and shipped about 28 million tons of coal before closing in 1991. During that time, the company provided numerous high-paying, blue-collar jobs.
“They were a major employer. They kept the whole valley afloat for years,” said Steve Renner, a senior project manager with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, who worked on the Coal Basin reclamation following the New interest in coal mining at former reclamation area has many scratching heads mine’s closure.
Ogilby said he remembers the trucks passing his property on the highway about every 12 minutes to deliver coal to a rail load-out facility near Carbondale. He said a neighbor worked in the mine for decades and was heavily involved in rescue operations following the 1981 methane explosion that killed 15 miners. Nine died in another explosion at the mine in 1965.
Constantly challenged by factors such as methane and the area’s 10,000-foot elevation, steep terrain and heavy snow, the mine eventually went bankrupt. Renner said it was a large operation that required a lot of reclamation, such as decommissioning about 14 or 15 miles of roads, dealing with three large waste piles, and stabilizing hillsides and mine bench areas.
“That was all about seven or eight years of work,” Renner said.
It covered perhaps 350 acres, he said.
Mid-Continent did maybe $500,000 in demolition work, and the state spent perhaps $3 million on the remainder of the work, Renner said. He said money recovered from the company’s bankruptcy and bonding covered most of that cost, but not all of it because of bonding that was connected to a company facility near Carbondale that turned out to be worth substantially less than projected.
“We don’t accept real estate as (bond) collateral anymore,” said Sandy Brown, a senior environmental protection specialist with the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
The mine closure was followed by a land exchange in which the Forest Service ended up with significant acreage at the mine site.
The Forest Service manages the acquired acreage and other forest land in Coal Basin with an emphasis on nonmotorized recreation.
Renner said the state has continued to do maintenance reclamation work up Coal Basin, and it has one last small project planned for this summer.
Snelson said the Forest Servi ce has been working with Pitkin County and the state on pursuing further restoration work to improve habitat and water quality, but if it looks as if mining may return to the basin, “we’ll certainly have to rethink those efforts.” Ogilby said many residents are concerned particularly about protecting water quality in Coal Creek and the Crystal River, which Coal Creek joins in Redstone.
Coal Basin is highly erosive, consisting of steeply dipping Mancos shale, and Coal Creek naturally fills with sediment after rainstorms, Renner said. He said a primary goal of the reclamation was greatly reducing additional sedimentation of area creeks due to mining.
He described Coal Basin as “a difficult and environmentally sensitive area” where high rain and snowfall contribute to erosion.
“It’s a challenging area, no doubt about it,” said Brown, Renner’s coworker in the state agency that would have a hand in regulating any new mine up there.
Brown said any proposal would have to address things such as hydrology, subsidence and wildlife. A bond requirement based on the estimated cost of reclamation would be re-evaluated every two-and-a-half years.
Haskins, the forest planner, said federal agencies have the option of seeking withdrawal of areas from mining. But she said outstanding property rights must be honored.
The BLM’s Boyd said a majority of minerals in the basin, including in the Huntsman Ridge area to the west of the former mine, are federally owned.
David Francomb, who manages the White River National Forest’s leasable minerals program, said he believes the acreage the Forest Service obtained in the land swap didn’t include the minerals. Owners of minerals have the right to develop them, he said.
Boyd said the mineral ownership below the transferred land remains unclear, and the BLM and Forest Service are trying to determine its ownership.