It's the Pits

Mining made history in Victor. But will a new gold rush devour its future?

What Victor wants, though, isn't always clear. "There's going to be a certain group in Victor, no matter what you came up with, they wouldn't like it," she says. "If you won the lottery for Victor, somebody would complain about that."

Even if the citizens of Victor were united in their stance concerning the mine, the most important decisions about the operation have been largely out of their control. That point was demonstrated by the recent land swap between CCV and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which allowed CCV to acquire 62 acres of public land in and around the present mining operation in exchange for 102 acres of land owned by the mine in Teller and Fremont counties.

Such land exchanges have become a common way for the federal government to dispense with hard-to-manage acreage--in this case, 298 small parcels of BLM land, none larger than six acres--and acquire property that may already be surrounded by other federal lands. Last October, after conducting an environmental assessment and concluding that the deal would have "no significant impact" on the surrounding area, the BLM gave its approval to the swap.

The decision drew strong protests from the Victor city council, Citizens for Victor! and other preservation groups. The transfer also came under fire from the National Park Service, which hadn't been consulted about the move--even though the exchange included property within the Cripple Creek National Historic District that the NPS is charged to protect under the National Historic Preservation Act.

The usual appeal process was short-circuited last spring, when Bob Armstrong, one of Bruce Babbitt's top aides in the Department of the Interior, intervened to sign off on the exchange. Ken Smith, public-affairs officer for the BLM's Canon City office, says his agency sought the expedited decision to avoid having the transfer further delayed by administrative appeals that could drag on for years. "We thought it was in the public interest to send it to the Secretary," he says.

"Very rarely does the Secretary's office intercede in a case," notes Roger Flynn, attorney for the Western Mining Action Project in Boulder, a nonprofit group that represented Citizens for Victor! in its protest. Flynn says that by the time he learned of Armstrong's action, title to the land had already changed hands, making a court challenge nearly impossible. "I think public participation was a sham. Considering that the town was against this, we felt we should have at least had a chance to go before the court system."

CCV executive Komadina points out that the land transfer itself "is not an enabling activity." Before the company can expand its operation, it will have to seek a new amendment to its state permit, which Komadina doesn't expect to submit until some time early next year. In any case, he adds, BLM officials are already on record stating that they would probably not oppose mining on the parcels even if they had remained in federal hands.

But Flynn argues that taking the lands out of federal control lessens the degree of scrutiny CCV's operation will receive. "They'll tell you it makes no difference, but that's just flat-out wrong," he says. "Getting the feds out of the picture saves the company hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on the environmental and historical-protection side. The BLM was just happy to get out of Dodge."

Bill Clymer fears that the transfer will bring the open-pit operation, which currently can't be seen from the town itself, into what locals refer to as their "viewshed." Several of the BLM parcels are on the hillsides above downtown Victor, a National Register site.

"If they take our viewshed, then the City of Mines becomes the City of Big Holes," he says.

Last February, Victor's city council passed an ordinance banning mining within the city limits. The move was sparked in part by concerns over the environmental assessment for the BLM land swap, which identified "potential mineral exploration target areas" that were practically on top of the town's cemetery and its former landfill.

Rumors flew that CCV had purchased the cemetery and was preparing to mine there. The rumors proved unfounded, but Slim Hopkins still suspects the company has designs on the landfill; a few weeks ago the mayor's efforts to reopen the dump were halted by county and state officials, and he says he's "gotten the runaround" on the issue.

Some residents believe the mining is already getting too close to home. Once a week, CCV sets off hundreds of ammonium nitrate charges in small holes drilled into the wall of the pit. The blasting fractures the rock benches with shock waves, preparing the way for more mining. But on occasion, the blasts have been felt in town, too; property owners have complained about rattling windows, loosened mortar and even cracked bricks that they believe have been caused by the blasting.

"I have absolutely no doubt that the blasting is cracking my house all over," says June Fuhlrodt, a Victor resident for more than 25 years. She points to various unsightly developments in practically every room: a series of hairline cracks in the walls of the living room and dining room; tongue-and-groove oak floors that have loosened up and are now squeaking; a sunroom addition in which skylights and sheetrock have slipped their moorings, letting water seep in; a foyer that was recently replastered because chunks of the wall were falling on the floor.

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