Forest Service, last miner standing in Pitkin County try to settle permit dispute
Alabaster and marble mine’s potential hardly dented, owner says
The U.S. Forest Service and the last of the hard-rock miners in Pitkin County have agreed to try to settle a dispute outside of a courtroom.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams will hear arguments from his staff and Robert Congdon’s team on Wednesday over the status of Congdon’s permit for operations at an alabaster and marble mine in Avalanche Creek in the Crystal Valley.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District notified Congdon’s Mystic Eagle Quarry LLC in 2019 that he needed to remove his equipment from the mine site, about 5 miles north of Redstone, because he did not possess a valid mining permit. The basis for the notice was Mystic Eagle lost possession of the unpatented mining claims to a rival mining company.
Congdon’s firm countered that it re-established its possession of the mining claims and, therefore, its permit remained valid.
Mystic Eagle filed a lawsuit in federal court in February to seek a ruling that it holds a valid permit. The litigation was placed on hold to try to resolve the dispute administratively. Congdon said he was pessimistic about progress until Fitzwilliams recently determined he would hold an administrative review.
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Wednesday’s hearing is closed to the public. A previous deadline required Mystic Eagle to remove its equipment from the site by Aug. 31. A Forest Service spokesman said that deadline could be affected by the timing of Fitzwilliams’ decision.
It’s the latest chapter in a long, convoluted and contentious fight over the mine. Along with the usual challenges of raising capital, pulling out the marble and alabaster and processing it, Congdon’s team has been embroiled in fights with Pitkin County, the Forest Service and some of the mine’s neighbors over the extent of the operation.
Congdon jokes that he was a young man when he first had a hunch 39 years ago that the site at the base of Mount Sopris had potential for mining. He undertook prospecting with the help of a donkey in 1982.
By 1991, he was convinced the mine had lucrative veins of white, black and gray alabaster that was sometimes found swirled together. He found a demand for the alabaster among sculptors and for indoor architectural stonework.
A bonus was a deep vein of black marble that he claims is rated among the best in the world. Deep into the mine he has also discovered brown marble. He estimated the vein of black marble at 60 feet thick and roughly 4,000 feet long. The brown marble is estimated at 110 feet long and 4,000 feet long.
In 1992-93, the Forest Service approved his plan of operation with seasonal restrictions for the winter. The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety approved his reclamation plan that same year. He started working the mine in 1993 but was “red-tagged” by Pitkin County and ordered to cease. Congdon contended he didn’t need a county permit, so he ignored the red tag. The county filed a lawsuit, and the issue was resolved with a long-term permit by 1998.
“Several hundred tons (of various rock) have come out of here,” Congdon said while providing a tour of the cool, dimly lit horizontal shaft in late July.
With all permits in hand, Congdon was able to enlist investors, and production at the mine “went into full speed” between 1998 and 2003, he said.
“We built a state-of-the-art production factory in Carbondale with an Italian diamond wire saw,” Congdon said. “We started generating finished products and shipping products.”
However, Congdon was never able to win Forest Service approval for winter production at the mine. He claims the factory went “belly up” in 2005 because of the seasonal restrictions.
Walt Brown, a Glenwood Springs attorney and interest holder in the mining operation, said the team fought for 10 years to acquire the latest mining permit, issued on Jan. 15, 2015. It’s valid for 20 years. Congdon said the Forest Service never informed him that it was revoked.
In 2016 there was limited production at the mine, and in 2017 blocks of stone were cut underground with a wire saw to provide samples and test the market for the products.
Congdon amassed 10 unpatented mining claims at the site at 20 acres each. As the holder of the unpatented claims, he is entitled to the subsurface minerals, but the Forest Service maintains the surface rights.
Congdon estimates that he has mined only about one-half of the time since 1993 because of the various legal battles over permits. His team was also stymied when it failed to file the proper paperwork showing it was working the mine. That allowed a rival firm headed by a former partner to take over the claims. However, the rival made the same mistake, and Congdon’s group says it regained control. Forest Service officials aren’t so sure. That’s why they filed the notice to remove the equipment.
Congdon laments the mine has never scratched its potential despite lucrative supplies of alabaster and marble. At one point, he received assessments that indicate 32 million tons of brown marble and 21 million tons of black marble can be recovered, assuming a recovery rate of 40 to 50 percent.
In the farthest recesses of the mine, beyond the point where lights are strung up, sits a hulking piece of machinery called a continuous miner. On the end of a long arm, it has a rotary saw blade with carbide teeth that chews into the rock. It’s sat idle for years. Congdon hopes that changes in the near future.
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