One of the West's classic confrontations between pro- and anti-development forces has been put on the back burner by the falling price of the strategic metal, molybdenum.
The giant mining company, AMAX Inc., recently confirmed that it is postponing plans by at least two years to mine the 12,000-foot Mt. Emmons, which overlooks the small Colorado ski resort of Crested Butte and contains a rich deposit of "moly" -- a relatively rare element used to harden steel.
Since it was announced four years ago, the mine has been adamantly opposed by a number of local residents, backed by regional and national environmental organizations. They have contended that the project would turn Crested Butte into a "boom town," damage the environment, and interfere with the recreation, tourism, and ranching, which they prefer as an economic base.
According to AMAX, a worldwide oversupply of molybdenum has forced the company to cut its prices and curtail its operations. The company had planned to begin construction on the $1 billion "state of the art" mine next year. AMAX spokesmen stress that they are not abandoning the project and that it is still "a very attractive prospect."
The mine's opponents reacted joyfully to word of the reprieve. "All the people who worked to make AMAX accountable here have saved Gunnison County from a catastrophic bust," the High Country Citizen's Alliance, the 400-member group which has been fighting AMAX, responded.
The Mt. Emmons project has been the subject of a number of innovative attempts to resolve the conflict.
AMAX brought in a group of environmental mediators to work with the community , prepare them for the impact of the rapid growth they would experience, and find ways to meet the objections which they had to the mine. The mining company spent $13 million on a water treatment plant to clean up tailings and other waste from an old mining operation that they acquired. The plant was dedicated last weekend. They plan to put some of their buildings underground and locate their tailing dump site eight miles from the mine to lessen their operation's visual impact.
On the other hand, AMAX has steadfastly refused to consider reducing the size of the operation from the 20,000 tons per day they plan, saying it is economically unfeasible. Local officials have suggested such a course, arguing that it would reduce the economic impact on the area and allow the mine to operate for 60 to 100 years, rather than 10 to 20 as currently planned.
In addition, the mine was a test case for Colorado's innovative Joint Review Process, an attempt to streamline and coordinate the regulatory thicket which projects of this sort confront and to increase public input and participation in early planning. The JRP has drawn mixed reviews from participants.
Neither this process, however, nor the mitigation efforts that AMAX has made have been successful in diffusing hard-core opposition to the mine.
"Our job isn't over yet. If AMAX comes back in 5 or 10 years, we will be here. The project is a bad one," Chuck Malick, head of the group opposing the mine, told the Denver Post.