Red Lady Coalition

Mission Statement

The Red Lady Coalition is a group of individuals and organizations whose mission is preservation of a safe, intact and protected Mt. Emmons. This includes preserving the integrity ...

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Historic Town of Crested Butte

©2012 Red Lady Coalition
Crested Butte, CO

Dear Ohio Creek...

There is no nice way to say it: If mine developers U.S. Energy and Thompson Creek Metals were allowed to build a molybdenum mine on Mt. Emmons, Crested Butte would get the mine and Ohio Creek Valley would get the dump. It is an ugly thought.

Let’s think about the unthinkable for a minute. The mining companies want to mine over 220 million tons of molybdenum ore, about 6,000 tons a day, 24/7, to produce about 460 million pounds of molybdenum concentrate. That leaves well over 219 million tons of waste material called “tailings” or “slime” that has to go somewhere.

Tailings are not nice stuff. They are the end result of the process by which ore is crushed to fine powder and then water is added to create a slimy, muddy slurry. Milling extracts molybdenum from the slurry and flushes the remainder—tailings—off to disposal at the “tail” end of the process.

Tailings are highly toxic; nothing lives in, on or around them. Sulfide tailings, such as those that would come from Mt. Emmons, liberate and ultimately leach sulfuric acid. That is what acid mine drainage is. Furthermore, the crushed sulfide ore contains cadmium, lead and zinc sulfides, none of which the miners want. So all those toxics, plus any chemical reagents added to the process, end up as waste in a tailings disposal site. And where do you suppose they want to put that site?

The headwaters of Ohio Creek and Carbon Creek gather in meadows and wetlands behind Carbon Peak. In a bit of complicated topography, both Ohio and Carbon Creeks drain from behind the mountain.
Carbon Creek flows east and south, Ohio Creek flows west and south; the streams join a few miles below Baldwin Townsite. Call it a double whammy.

On this pristine little piece of geography, the mining companies want to construct a 300-acre tailings disposal site or slime pond. Just downstream on the Carbon Creek side, a private land owner hopes to build vacation homes. Downstream on the Ohio Creek side of Carbon Peak, the stream gathers water from the Anthracite Range and West Elk Mountains for use throughout the Ohio Creek Valley in domestic wells and hay-land irrigation.

Creating slime ponds is not a simple matter of hauling stuff from the mill and dumping it on the ground. First, a system of roads, pipelines and pump stations would be built to carry the liquefied rock-powder slurry from the mine and mill site on Mt. Emmons. After molybdenum is extracted from the slurry, the system would transport waste slime up Splains Gulch to the tailings disposal site behind Carbon Peak. Roads and pipelines would also connect to a water storage reservoir in Carbon Creek.

Once that infrastructure is in place, the tailings disposal site itself would be prepared for use. This involves removing all the trees, wetlands, meadows and soil cover, scraping the area to bedrock. Dams at Carbon and Ohio Creek outlets would hold the slime back…for a while. Worldwide, tailings dams fail at a rate of about two per year. The whole mess would be covered with a liner, essentially a big piece of thick, plastic sheeting, not unlike visqueen only thicker.

Let’s forget, for a moment, the egregious harm done to the aesthetics of this once pristine place. Let’s not even think about the private property owner in Carbon Creek whose land lies immediately below the Carbon Creek tailings dam. And forget about the National Forest—public—land through which Ohio Creek trickles and flows behind Carbon Peak. Forget how beautiful the place is when the aspen change and the elk bugle, forget that the best way to see it is to walk there, and put any thought of solitude and quiet out of your mind.

Think instead about bulldozers and earth movers clambering up Carbon Creek and over Splains Gulch into the Ohio Creek watershed. Don’t picture any little machines, no Bobcats, no little D-4s. Instead think D-11s, trackhoes, excavators and scrapers. Think roads and lights, generators and electric lines. Think buildings and machine shops, pump stations and storage sheds. Once you have all that in mind, double the scale. This is no small undertaking.

Now think about the water. Water gathers here for use as far downstream as Arizona and Nevada. We use it in Ohio Creek Valley and all Gunnison River Basin including Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We drink it and we raise the food we eat with it. Nor is our water a plentiful resource. While here at the headwaters we may perceive an unending supply, as we travel downstream clean water becomes increasingly rare and valuable enough to transition from resource to commodity. The active word in that sentence is CLEAN.

The mining companies will assure us that technologies exist and government regulations guarantee any mine or tailings pond effluent be clean and free of mine-derived pollutants. Yet tailings dams fail. Slurry pipes break from constant abrasion by rock-powder slurry. Pump stations fail. Systems break down or don’t act as predicted. All liners leak; ask any hydrologist.

A study, “Comparison of Predicted and Actual Water Quality at Hardrock Mines” (Kuiper, 2006), observed modern mines similar to the mine proposed for Mt. Emmons. Researchers found that of twenty-five mines studied, 91% predicted no exceedences of pollution standards yet exceeded standards in nearby surface water. Eighty-six percent exceeded standards in groundwater.

There is no technology to keep ground and surface water pollution from happening. That is what mines do: they pollute. It is simple: if you want clean water, you can’t put a molybdenum mine, its infrastructure and its tailings ponds in the watershed.

Ohio Creek water is clean and precious. It is vital for fisheries, wildlife, agriculture, tourism and just plain drinking. If we pollute water at its very headwaters, it remains forever contaminated.

There are many other molybdenum deposits in North America, places where water is dedicated to mining and not agriculture or domestic and municipal use. There are numerous deposits near communities that want to mine, that can provide a skilled work force, and that boast substantial industrial infrastructure already in place.

To so callously poison Ohio Creek is unconscionable. It is unthinkable. And it is preventable.