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It's the Pits

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

Flynn, who's representing Citizens for Victor! as an intervenor in the lawsuit, dismisses the mine's claim of natural pollution as "ludicrous." He claims that CCV has altered the water quality on its site in various ways, including moving an old tailings dump (which had served as an alkaline buffer) in order to build its leach pad. But even if the mine did nothing to make the problem worse, he argues, CCV is still obliged to bring its discharges into compliance with the permit.

"The law is very clear--you're responsible for what's coming off your property," he says. "The company bought all those mining claims because there's a lot of gold up there. They want the profit; they want all the benefits of controlling the land up there, but none of the burdens."

Flynn regards the dispute as a key case in the mining industry's battles with regulators over whether water that's been exposed to acidic mine tailings will have to comply with the EPA's tough effluent standards. "Clean water is the Achilles' heel of the mining industry," he says. "It's the Achilles' heel of Cripple Creek."

Hearings on the issue began a few weeks ago and are expected to continue this month. "I'm afraid that this could go on for a long while," says Holm, who's "uncertain" what enforcement power the state might have over the mine's water discharges while the permit is stayed. "I don't remember the last time this happened. I'm not sure it ever happened while I've been here."

The mine has also walked a fine line with local and state historic-preservation interests. According to Komadina, CCV has already invested $3.5 million to comply with federal requirements to document historic features of the mine site. For two years the company sent a team of archaeologists across the fields before mining got under way. Artifacts that were small enough to be removed were placed in hundreds of boxes; those that are of museum quality may eventually be displayed in Victor's Lowell Thomas Museum or elsewhere. With few exceptions, larger structures, such as the historic buildings in the ghost towns, were photographed, catalogued, detailed in a descriptive database--and then bulldozed.

"The historic buildings were decaying, and they were only going to get worse," Komadina says. "I think it's almost unparalleled, the amount of money that was spent by CCV to do this."

State officials say they worked with CCV to salvage as much as they could. "I would have liked to have seen more in-place preservation," says Susan Collins, Colorado's state archaeologist and deputy state preservation officer, "but that was not something we were able to negotiate."

Collins considers the area, with its fading camps and deteriorating mine shacks, to be of "National Register quality." "The resources are not necessarily pretty, but that doesn't make them any less historic," she says. "They convey the feeling of the land at the time of its prior use as a nationally important mining district. It leads us to think they deserve some attention."

Komadina says that when the inventorying is complete, several file cabinets of historic data will be available on CD-ROM for future generations. "You'll be able to fly around the district on a computer and look at, say, the Elkton townsite," he says. "You can come back to the fall of 1993--what did this area look like? What was its historical relationship to the district? You can click on the mouse and just drill right down."

But some folks in Victor are markedly less enthusiastic about the project than Komadina. Mayor Hopkins, for instance, has failed to warm to the notion that sights that have drawn tourists to the district for years will now be available exclusively on CD-ROM.

"Somehow there's a difference," he says, "between looking at a computer screen and standing out here with the breeze blowing while I point out things to you and give you living history."

The mayor has his own vision for the future of Victor, a vision that revolves around a lush meadowland a couple of miles from town known as the Vindicator Valley. A man can stand there, amid the ruins of the once-prosperous gold camps of Independence, Hollywood and Bull Hill, with the breeze tickling his nostrils, and trace the remnants of two streetcar and three railroad lines. If he's done his homework, he can even pick out the old municipal boundaries--mute testimony to the days when, as Hopkins puts it, "if you didn't like the way things were done, you could go across the city limits and put up your own town."

Hopkins figures the Vindicator Valley is within field-trip distance of most of the Front Range, and he'd like to see the area preserved for teaching schoolchildren from Boulder to Trinidad about the gold rush and what it meant to Colorado. The city council has included the area in the proposed three-mile "buffer zone" around the town that it recently submitted to county planning officials. But it's unclear what say the city might have over what happens to the site. The valley is owned by the mine, and Komadina declines to say what the mine's plans for it might be.

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