It's the Pits
Marshall "Slim" Hopkins stands on a windswept precipice in southern Teller County, a couple of miles outside the town of Victor. It is a place he comes to often, to take in what may be the most sobering view in all of Colorado.
Looking west, Hopkins can see rolling hills covered with aspen and pine, stretching to the purple mantle of the Sangre de Cristos. Behind him is the weathered headframe of the long-abandoned American Eagles mine--at 10,750 feet, the highest underground operation from the heyday of the Cripple Creek-Victor gold rush a century ago. But it's the scene in the foreground that brings the mayor of Victor back to the overlook time and again.
"What you see here," Hopkins says, "is the result of twenty months of operation. My question is, how much more can they destroy before we're left with nothing?"
Directly below him, the green hills end abruptly. In their place is a denuded pit, the largest open-pit mining operation in Colorado: a vast, downward-spiraling moonscape of fractured rock and rough-hewn red-granite walls sprawled across hundreds of acres of the Gold Belt country between Victor and Cripple Creek. Like hungry insects, a fleet of dump trucks and front-end loaders rumbles through the wasteland at all hours of the day and night, moving more than half a million tons of rock each week. Much of it is destined to be crushed, spread across a long, flat leach pad and sprayed with a cyanide solution to extract particles of gold.
The microscopic amounts of gold in the ore, mere hundredths of an ounce per ton, would have been scorned by underground miners of an earlier generation. On the same site in 1914, operators of the Cresson Mine tapped into a "vug," a chamber of crystalline gold so pure that miners simply shoveled it into canvas sacks and hauled it to a bank vault at the mine entrance. But in today's market, with gold selling at a hundred times its 1914 price, the owners of the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company figure to make up in volume what the ore lacks in quality. CCV plans to extract 1.2 million ounces of gold from the hills around Victor before it's through.
Officials at CCV, a joint venture whose principal owner is a Luxembourg-based conglomerate, tout their operation as a showcase of modern technology; they say their record demonstrates a profound commitment to the scenic environment and fabled history of Colorado's celebrated mining district. The mine is the largest private employer in the county and has invested millions in reclamation efforts, community projects (such as sponsoring public events and offering scholarships to local high-school seniors) and county improvements--for example, building the road to the American Eagles overlook for tourists, using processed gold ore.
"We are different from the prior mining companies," declares Pikes Peak Mining Company executive vice president Jim Komadina, the CCV general manager. "You do not come into the United States lightly, particularly in an old mining district, unless you're going to stand on your commitments."
But Hopkins and local critics of the mine contend that CCV is bent on extracting as much gold as possible--even if it means chewing up the area's history and encircling their town with barren pits and heaps of processed ore. Despite tougher mining regulations prompted by the 1992 Summitville disaster in southern Colorado, they believe that federal, state and county officials have let the mine have its way on a number of key points, from discharging water that is more acidic than its state permit allows--a permit that's been held in abeyance while the company challenges its provisions in court--to a fast-track land swap earlier this year that gave CCV title to several parcels of federal land for possible expansion of its operations.
The current mining area lies within half a mile of Victor's city limits, and locals wonder where it might be headed in the future. They've gritted their teeth over the weekly blasting of rock shelves by the mine, which some believe is damaging hundred-year-old buildings in town. They've puzzled over lackluster tourism despite the gaming boom in neighboring Cripple Creek, blaming the decline on road closures and other mining activities. And they have watched the gold camps on the surrounding hills, historic ghost towns that used to draw mining buffs from around the world, disappear into the pit.
"Right now, the bulldozer is their main historic-preservation tool," says David McCormick, owner of the Midnight Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Victor. "I'm positive that if this company could, they would bulldoze this entire town."
Even CCV's supposed generosity to the mining district, which includes the relocation of two landmark headframes (the towers above underground mine shafts) to the towns of Cripple Creek and Victor, has come under attack. "They say they've put millions into this community," says Mayor Hopkins. "We can't find it. They claim it cost $300,000 just to move the Cresson headframe; I challenge them to produce the receipts. I come from a heavy-equipment operation background, and moving that shouldn't have cost even $50,000."
Hopkins notes that CCV no longer offers scholarships to local high-school seniors, a program begun under the mine's previous owners; now only dependents of mine employees qualify for the grants. And the American Eagles overlook wasn't exactly a gift, either: As part of a deal with the county, CCV agreed to build the road in exchange for closing Range View Road, a scenic byway above Victor that lay in the path of the mining operation. Hopkins suspects the road to the overlook will be used as a haul road in a few years and the remnants of the American Eagles plowed under. CCV's Komadina acknowledges that the site might be the target of future mining operations--"We still own the property, and we can't predict the future," he says--but if that happens, the company is obliged to provide the county with another overlook.
Whether the overlook survives or not, Range View Road is history. And several of the ghost towns that used to be visible from the road--Elkton, Stratton, Winfield, even Altman, at one time the highest incorporated town in America--are gone, too. Slowly but inexorably, substantial portions of the area's past are being devoured by the mine, and Hopkins says he's had few assurances from CCV about the fate of what remains.
"My feeling is, they're planning to mine right up to the city limits if we let them," he says. "I've been talking to them for eighteen months. I just sent them a letter last week saying, 'You know, we've talked and talked, and I don't have anything in writing from you guys agreeing to any one of our concerns.' I want something. Otherwise, I'm going to have to start taking action on my own."
But whatever action the mayor might take is bound to face stiff opposition. Just how many CCV employees live in Victor is a matter of some debate--Hopkins estimates 13, while Komadina says it's more like 45--but there's little question that the town is deeply divided about the mine. Some see it as an economic godsend, in the tradition of earlier mining booms; others regard it as the primary threat to preserving that heritage.
The controversy has stirred up plenty of hard feelings and acrid politics. Hopkins and his city council, more critical of the mine than previous administrations, have survived two recall attempts in the past two years. Dueling weekly newspapers have adopted strongly contrasting editorial positions with regard to the mine. Allegations of deep-seated political conspiracies and brazen conflicts of interest abound. Victor may be the only town of 600 to boast both an aggressive chapter of People for the West--a pro-mining advocacy group--and an equally ardent contingent of part-time residents involved in historic-preservation efforts.
"Everybody knows how everybody else feels in a town this small," says Steph Hilliard, editor of the Gold Rush, a local weekly that some Victorites have accused of being biased in favor of the mine. "You're either on one side or the other. And if you're not on 'our' side, you must be on the other."
The issue will come to a head this fall, as Victor seeks to establish a "buffer zone" around the town and a group of pro-mining candidates vies to unseat the current city council. David McCormick wonders if the embattled town can control its own destiny in the face of the mine's considerable economic and public-relations resources. Pleas for assistance from state mining and preservation agencies have produced few results, he says.
A former Denver restaurateur, McCormick sold his interest in Racines and Goodfriends a few years ago to concentrate on building his businesses in Victor, which include a commercial building and a small rental home in addition to the Midnight Inn.
"My grandparents and great-grandparents were hard-rock miners here for years," he says. "I've been coming up here since I was a little kid, and I've been living permanently here for the last nine years. I'm not about to give this up without a fight. I'm not against mining, but this high-impact mining has to be carefully scrutinized."
"The mine's goal is to make money," adds city councilman Marshall Winblood. "I understand that. But ten years down the road, they're going to be gone--and we're stuck with whatever they leave."
The drive from Cripple Creek to Victor is only six miles, but the psychic distance is much greater. It's a lot like leaving a phony movie-set version of a mining town and stumbling across the real thing.
Long before the casinos opened in Cripple Creek, the two towns were headed in different directions. During the gold rush of the 1890s, Cripple Creek was the home of the bankers, the financiers, the angle boys; the miners staked their claim to Victor, the City of Mines--or, as it's known now, "the unpolished gem of Teller County." Victor itself is riddled with old underground shafts, drifts and stopes dating back to the early days of the boom, when a local entrepreneur set about digging a foundation for a hotel and hit paydirt instead, right in the middle of town.
Over the years, Victor has clung fiercely to its blue-collar mining heritage, even as the mines dwindled and the moneybags moved on to greener pastures. While other gold camps tried to reinvent themselves as ski resorts or tourist traps, the City of Mines stayed true to its roots; locals even voted against the limited-stakes gaming measure that has transformed Cripple Creek into a slough of slot machines.
Victor remains the least pretentious of Colorado's mining towns, a place where lovingly restored Victorian buildings abut vacant storefronts in a pastiche of charm and funk. Gambling in Cripple Creek has brought an influx of casino employees to Victor, doubling the population in the past five years and generating complaints about loose dogs and junked autos. But dramatic as the gaming-related growth has been, it's been overshadowed by an even more unsettling development: the resurgence of mining in the district.
In the 1960s, the Golden Cycle Gold Corporation, an old mining concern with ties to the original gold rush, quietly bought up many of the mining claims in the district. The claims lay dormant for years, but eventually, rising gold prices and new surface-mining techniques began to make the prospect of reworking the old gold fields more attractive. Golden Cycle, a Colorado Springs-based company whose board of directors includes former Colorado governor John Love, entered into partnerships with a series of major mining companies, but the project didn't get under way in earnest until the early 1990s.
The current Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company is a joint venture between Golden Cycle and the Pikes Peak Mining Company, which owns two-thirds of the project. Pikes Peak was purchased by Independence Mining in 1993; Independence, in turn, is a subsidiary of Englewood-based Minorco U.S.A., the North American arm of a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate headquartered in Luxembourg. But CCV's complex chain of ownership doesn't end there: Minorco is controlled by South Africa's Anglo American Corporation, whose holdings include the De Beers diamond cartel and a veritable octopus of precious metals and minerals concerns operating on four continents.
Victor took little notice of CCV's operation during its first years of exploration and permitting procedures. But even before the first gold was poured, in early 1995, the mine had become a substantial economic presence in town. CCV is the city's biggest water customer, buying around $400,000 worth of water a year--a revenue stream that accounts for more than a third of Victor's budget. And mine employees tended to take an active interest in local politics. One current and several past city council members work for the mine; before Minorco took over, the mine's project supervisor also served as the city's mayor.
Such cozy ties soon led to charges that city officials were putting the mine's interests before those of local residents. One of the most vocal critics has been Bill Clymer, a former hard-rock miner who founded an organization called Citizens for Victor! in 1992. Although small in number, his group has challenged CCV on a number of fronts, from the bulldozing of ghost towns to its state water-quality permit.
"Just because they buy water from us, that shouldn't buy the whole town," Clymer says. "That doesn't mean we have to support every activity of theirs. People forget that before gaming came along, Cripple Creek was supported by the history of its gold camp. You can't market it after it's bulldozed, and we're losing tourism every year."
Clymer has blasted several city and county leaders as well as the Gold Rush newspaper, claiming they've all been "bought off" by the mine. His stance has earned him few friends in the opposing camp--editor Hilliard of the Gold Rush describes him as "just like a nasty little ankle-biting dog"--but Clymer doesn't care. "If someone localizes their opinion, they have a lot of people come down on them," he says. "There are only four or five people here who have the balls to say anything."
At the opposite pole from Clymer's group is the local chapter of People for the West, a pro-mining group based in Pueblo that bills itself as a grassroots organization but is heavily financed by mining companies. Victor's Two Mile High Chapter has won national recruiting contests in the organization for two years in a row and claims to have more than two hundred members; Clymer dismisses the group as "a bunch of patsies" and suggests that the bulk of the local membership is composed of mine employees.
Several months ago, chapter president John Wilcox challenged Clymer to what amounted to a showdown on Victor Avenue, in which the two groups could compare the size of their memberships, but Clymer wasn't interested. ("Screw that," he says. "I wasn't going to waste my time talking to those guys.") Instead, Wilcox's bunch staged a mock funeral for Citizens for Victor!, then passed out samples of Victor's drinking water in an effort to lampoon local concerns about the potential for highly acidic runoff from the mine.
People for the West hasn't been quite as visible in Victor in recent months, possibly because Wilcox ran afoul of state officials earlier this year by sending a letter to local registered voters. The letter claimed the voter rolls in Victor were "grossly inflated by the names of persons with questionable qualifications" and insinuated that those using absentee ballots had better cancel their local registration. Several recipients of the broadside complained to Colorado Secretary of State Victoria Buckley, who informed Wilcox that his letter "appears to have an element of intimidation" and urged him, in no uncertain terms, to refrain from future mailings.
Wilcox's letter was clearly aimed at Victor's growing contingent of part-time residents, many of whom own summer homes in the area, pay taxes and water fees year-round and consider CCV to be something less than an ideal neighbor. A group of part-timers known as the Tommyknockers has been active in getting out the vote in Victor and may have tipped the scales in the 1995 elections that swept Mayor Hopkins and other mine opponents into office. Tommyknocker Marilyn Fay says the group is not political but strives to support Victor's heritage and its economic future.
"I have a personal financial investment in this town," says Fay, who's owned a house in Victor for 27 years and is now restoring another home on Victor Avenue. "If you've been a Victor resident for as long as I have, you're looking for some change, but I would like to see the historical aspects protected. Victor is the last turn-of-the-century mining town in the Rocky Mountains that has not been discovered by the developers. It's truly an uncut jewel."
Fay calls Slim Hopkins "the best mayor we've ever had," but that opinion isn't universally shared in Victor. His tenure has been marked by two attempts to recall him and the entire city council, ostensibly over vague charges of "fiscal irresponsibility" and other alleged faults, but Hopkins supporters suspect that pro-mining forces played a part in the efforts. The mayor, the police chief and the city council were also the targets of a four-page anonymous flier that showed up in local mailboxes last summer, a marvel of calumny that painted the entire bunch as corrupt, self-serving, double-dealing buffoons.
The mayor has been sharply criticized by the mainstream press, too--that is, if your idea of the mainstream press is the Gold Rush, which has routinely taken Hopkins to task over perceived conflicts of interest involving a commercial property he owns and his shoot-from-the-hip style of government.
The new city council "has been much more adversarial and less effective, in my opinion," says editor Hilliard. "Our mayor seems to think that being chief executive officer gives him license to do whatever he wants. He's opening Victor up for lawsuits, if the mine was of that bent."
But the Gold Rush's critics argue that Hilliard has a few conflicts of her own--particularly since her husband, J.D. Hilliard, a former councilmember, is also a CCV employee. Hilliard says she's just telling it like it is, but the supposed need for a more "objective" newspaper was the rationale behind the Cripple Creek & Victor Eagle, a competing weekly launched by former Colorado Public Radio reporter Bob Dierking last year. The upstart Eagle has provided feistier, if somewhat strident, coverage of mining issues, often injecting into news stories editorial asides questioning the motives of various city officials. (One "publisher's note" in a report on a crucial city council vote involving the mine tweaked councilmembers J.D. Hilliard and Ginny Reilly: "The Eagle maintains that since both Reilly and Hilliard are mine employees, it would have been more ethical for them to have abstained from this vote since it clearly represents a conflict of interest." Hilliard fired off an angry reply, declaring that since he didn't own any stock in the company he worked for, there was no conflict.)
"We saw there was a need for greater objective and in-depth reporting on the area," says Dierking. "A lot of information that should have been revealed just wasn't getting out, and the good-old-boy network was very much alive."
Conflicts of interest over the mine are woven into the fabric of Victor, Dierking suggests; he even admits to some ambivalence about the project himself. "I remember four-wheeling back in some of the areas now controlled by the mine," he says. "Yeah, it was private property, but no one gave a darn if you went up there and explored the old ghost towns. I miss seeing some of those places; on the other hand, I grew up with family income from a huge mining company. I can't totally reject it, but I can be pretty upset about the mine taking advantage and ruining the environment around it."
The divisiveness has spilled over into a host of petty disputes in town. Hopkins has expressed an interest in shifting the town's legal advertising from the Gold Rush to the Eagle, which features a chatty column by the mayor. Innkeeper McCormick complains about a local convenience store that's become a "pro-mining hub" even though it also hosts the local post office. "There's a whole bunch of people who've moved their post office box to Cripple Creek," he says. "They will not go in that building anymore."
In recent months, another group has emerged with the intent of engaging in "constructive dialogue" with mine officials. Headed by Ruth Zirkle, a local freelance writer and former editor of the Gold Rush, Victor Focus has received financing from the state, CCV and local agencies to conduct a survey of local needs and to present a plan for minimizing the mine's impact on the area.
But because the group's membership is heavily weighted with people who have ties to the mine--including Komadina, CCV community affairs manager John Blythe and retired mine employee Ed Hunter--Victor Focus is also regarded as suspect in some quarters.
"I fell for them," says Mayor Hopkins, who approved a request for $2,500 in city funding toward the group's survey. "They came to me and said, 'Let us negotiate on your behalf and we'll produce results.' I authorized them to do that, not knowing that half of their members are mining people."
Zirkle says the group, which now calls itself the Southern Teller County Focus Group, couldn't have accomplished anything without involving the mine. "Our goal is to bring something positive out of the process, and if we have to go through a lot of negativity in the middle, we'll do it," she says.
To date, the group has had preliminary discussions with CCV about possible uses of the land--bike trails, a golf course--after mining is completed. Nothing definite has been decided, Zirkle says, "but they're willing to do a lot if they know what we want."
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.
Before the blasting began, Fuhlrodt says, "I didn't have any cracks in my house. None. They say it's just because it's an old building, but it's not logical that all these buildings would have the same thing going wrong with them at the same time. Every time they blast, I just watch the cracks get bigger."
Jim Komadina of CCV says he has no evidence that the mine's blasting has damaged any building in town. The charges are set in a delayed pattern, he says, to concentrate the force in the rock rather than outward, and the company hasn't even come close to exceeding the standards for "peak particle velocity" set by the state's Division of Minerals and Geology. His engineers have visited the complainants and placed sensors around town to measure any vibrations, he says, and have yet to find any problem that could be attributed to the mining.
"Twice now, we've had an independent consultant come out and evaluate our data and techniques," he says. "Both times the report has come back that we're having very little effect on those buildings. Natural wind and heating and cooling move the buildings more than we do."
Komadina notes that many of Victor's century-old buildings are constructed with soft-fired brick and weren't well-maintained during the town's long slump. He maintains that many of the structural problems pre-date the arrival of the mine. But property owners who've engaged in extensive renovation of their buildings in recent years and are now repairing fresh damage tend to see things differently.
"They say they're within the standards, but within the standards of what?" asks Dave McCormick, who's had to contend with falling plaster, broken windows and a cockeyed doorframe in two of his properties in town. "What are the standards for blasting through bedrock next to a town that's a hundred years old? I'm trying not to sound drastic, but they're literally blowing this town apart."
Two months ago, Mayor Hopkins took the locals' concerns about the weekly detonations to the state's Mined Land Reclamation Board. One of the complainants was Hopkins himself, who believes a blast last May is the culprit that cracked loose some recently installed skylights in his two-story brick building downtown.
"I can't trace it directly to the blasting," the mayor concedes. "Maybe my building settled. Maybe all eleven buildings that I know about settled in the same three months. But when all the skylights crack on the same side, in the same time frame--I got a problem with that."
The MLRB told Hopkins it would need more than locals' suspicions before it could conclude that the mine was causing damage in Victor. But councilman Winblood, who also happens to be Victor's building inspector, says there's no way to adequately document the relationship between blasting and fractured bricks in Victor without spending thousands of dollars on a detailed study of the question--money the town doesn't have. The only studies the state has done, he says, "are on new buildings, with full-fired brick and Portland mortar."
Winblood says he's stood on the second floor of Victor's City Hall and felt the building shake when CCV detonates its charges. "The permit limits them to a half-inch a second of lateral movement," he notes. "But that doesn't have anything to do with how much the building shakes. It's a subjective value, and experts disagree about what's acceptable."
It's ironic, Winblood suggests, that blasting has become an issue at a time when the city council has been working hard on renovation and preservation efforts, passing new zoning measures to protect the "historical integrity" of its turn-of-the-century architecture. (Until recently, he says, "it was possible to build a Quonset hut across from City Hall.") But all that effort may be for naught if the town can't come to some understanding with the mine.
"The mine asks for permits, and they don't notify the city that they're asking for those permits," Winblood says. "By the time we hear about them, they've already been approved. It's all legal. It's just not neighborly."
Komadina says that he's met frequently with city officials and that CCV has "gone the extra mile on a lot of different issues," including offering to videotape properties that residents are concerned about in order to document any alleged damage. He says he doesn't know what else his company can do to address a problem it regards as nonexistent. "We're more than willing to reconsider our position," he says, "but all the data keeps coming back negative."
Victorites, though, know what they've seen with their own eyes. Shirley Seese has lived in Victor for three decades, and she has few complaints with the way the mine does things. "This is a mining district," she says. "We all knew it when we moved here. You can't take it out of the ground the way they did a hundred years ago. At least now we see guys with hardhats and lunch pails again; before, all we were was a free museum."
But Seese knows what she saw. Last year she was standing at her kitchen sink when the mine let loose with one of its biggest blasts. As she watched, a one-inch crack in her Formica kitchen counter suddenly snaked to eighteen inches, and fresh cracks surfaced in its wake.
Jim Komadina first set foot on the Cresson mine site in December 1992, as a member of the Independence Mining acquisition team looking to buy into the CCV operation. It was not the best of times for the mining industry in Colorado.
Only days before Komadina arrived, the Canadian owners of the Summitville gold mine near Del Norte had declared bankruptcy and abandoned the operation, which had been leaking cyanide from its leach pad and secretly dumping acidic, copper-laden water into the Alamosa River for years. The move prompted an emergency takeover of the mine by the Environmental Protection Agency, which feared that the spring runoff could breach the mine's contaminated ponds and dump even more toxic solutions into the river. The cleanup bill for Summitville is expected to reach $150 million; the EPA is still battling to recover the expense in Canadian courts.
Komadina says he realized going into the CCV deal that Colorado would be strengthening its mining regulations in response to the public outcry over Summitville. "We understood what we were getting into," he says. "We wanted to make this mine a showplace, to show that we can work in an environmentally prudent manner. I believe we have."
A guided tour of the mine by CCV officials is peppered with phrases like "novel construction," "redundant systems" and "excruciating attention to every detail," like blurbs in a real estate brochure. Many of the featured attractions seem designed to allay fears of another Summitville. The site has no exposed tailings ponds, no glittering pools of cyanide soup to attract waterfowl. The leach pad is a triple-layered affair that Komadina describes as a "zero discharge" operation--in other words, the cyanide solution trickles through the rocks and is captured in a reservoir under the pad, then pumped into a recovery facility (sign by the door: "Pour 'Em Big!"), where the gold is electrochemically separated and the solution recycled. Buttons of gold the size of Hershey's kisses are then shipped elsewhere for further refining.
Although CCV expects to produce more than 200,000 ounces of gold this year--worth roughly $70 million on the open market--Komadina says the profit margin is a slim one, given the project's enormous up-front capital costs, $15 million annual payroll, taxes, exploration costs and the like. "This is a gold mine in name, not in terms of the business aspects of it," he says. "At current gold prices, we're just about dead break-even."
Production is expected to increase in coming years, but so is the cost of meeting state reclamation requirements. The mine has posted an irrevocable $22.5 million reclamation bond with the State of Colorado. (That's ten times the amount of the Summitville bond, Komadina notes.) Over the past three years, CCV has already spruced up several played-out areas of the site, backfilling gouged hillsides with waste rock, covering them with topsoil and adding grass seed, wildflowers, saplings and other vegetation; but the hills are slow to recover, and the patchy, slag-ridden landscape resembles the pate of an aging hippie with a scalp disease.
According to Komadina, it costs the company $7,000 an acre to reclaim land that might sell for $1,500 an acre. It's a good deal for the state, he adds, since CCV will eventually be cleaning up not only its own mess but the damage left by previous operations on the site. Even the Carlton Mill, a 1950s-era plant that's been converted into the site headquarters, won't be immune to the process; the mine plans to demolish the mill and expand the leach pad into the area, moving its base of operations into a renovated building in Victor.
Yet even a showcase operation like CCV has had its share of problems--not just with locals, but with state and federal regulators as well. One sore point has been the acidic quality of water leaving the site, primarily from storm runoff and groundwater. The Colorado Department of Health's original draft permit for the operation would have allowed highly acidic levels of water to flow from the site, levels that attorney Roger Flynn describes as "approaching battery acid." The EPA took strong issue with the proposed permit last year, and the state health department responded by toughening the standard.
CCV promptly filed an administrative lawsuit challenging the terms of the new permit. Komadina says the mine has since reached an "understanding" with the state over the storm runoff in one area. (Last month the EPA filed an objection to the state's shifting position on the matter, saying that the decision was reached without appropriate public comment and runs contrary to the EPA's own stringent discharge guidelines for mine sites.)
CCV is still haggling with the state over the quality of the water it releases into Arequa Gulch, a stream that feeds into Cripple Creek. Komadina says the acidic, zinc-laced groundwater flowing into the gulch doesn't come into contact with any of the water used in the leaching process but is "naturally" polluted by its complex interaction with the geology of the area. "We say it's natural," he says. "Whatever's contained in it is what God put into it."
"Our position is that it is not natural," counters Dave Holm, director of the water-quality-control division for the state health department. "It's been influenced by their operation and by historic mining activities."
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.
"Vindicator Valley is private property," he notes. "Private structures."
Although a survey conducted by the City of Victor indicates that most residents want to see the kind of buffer zone the council is seeking, Komadina dismisses the survey as unscientific and riddled with loaded questions. "This one issue of Vindicator Valley was never raised in our focus groups," he says. "It never came up on the radar screen."
The mine manager says CCV is awaiting the results of the Southern Teller County Focus Group's more elaborate survey before committing to a particular course. "When residents really say that something is an issue," he says, "we have always been responsive."
He adds, "Granted, not everyone is going to love us. But we do fill an integral part of the Colorado and the United States economy. I sleep very well at night."
Mining is the stuff of memories in Victor. But it's also become the agent of oblivion; the open pit outside of town claims more and more of the land around it and all that stood on the land, in a relentless act of forgetfulness. History is fragile, and in Victor there is much talk of trying to strike a balance between preserving the past and building the future. Lately, though, the forces of forgetfulness seem to be winning.
Bill Clymer hasn't been as involved in the battle against the mine since he suffered a stroke last January. "I forgot everything I knew," he says. "I couldn't even talk for a month. So I'm not as active anymore."
Although he knows the history of Victor better than most tour guides, Slim Hopkins is plagued by forgetfulness, too. He was in a serious car wreck a few years ago, he says, that left him with a "real bad memory problem."
"Sometimes my memory totally fades out," he says, "to the extent that I'll be driving down the highway and won't know where I'm going. Other times it works fine. Fortunately, I have enough people looking after me now."
Three weeks ago, Hopkins told Westword that he would not be seeking re-election as mayor of Victor. The decision had less to do with occasional absentmindedness than with dollars and cents, he explained. The job demands more time than he can spare, so much time that he's had little left over for managing his commercial property downtown. "I don't take on any job unless I can do my very best with it, and I couldn't give it the time it needs to do it right. I've lived with this frustration for two years."
A few days later, at the urging of his supporters, Hopkins decided to declare his candidacy after all, but he says he's "keeping the door open" and might still drop out of the race. He and the rest of the city council face a field of challengers that includes several people who have business dealings with the mine or close relatives who are employed by the mine. One of the three candidates is ex-mayor Jim Watson, who's been active in People for the West and in an unsuccessful recall campaign directed at the current council; the mine recently purchased a building he owned in downtown Victor for its new headquarters.
Hopkins says he isn't surprised that CCV has chosen to wait until after the elections to unveil its latest permit amendment. That way, he suggests, the mine can present its plans for expansion to the Mined Land Reclamation Board with what could be a hearty endorsement from a strongly pro-mining Victor city council.
"I'm not sure what we can do about that," he says. "People say, 'You have to give the mine something.' But they're taking everything. If we lose what we've got left, it's going to be Colorado's loss."
Hopkins measures the loss every time he visits the American Eagles overlook. To get there, he passes by the Vindicator Valley. In recent weeks he's noticed that certain old shacks around the camps that he's seen for years seem to be disappearing. They're small changes in the landscape, not something you'd notice unless you were looking for it.
Maybe the buildings blew over in a strong wind. Maybe someone has been out scavenging for wood. Maybe, Hopkins suggests, the mine is engaging in a little exercise in forgetfulness, knocking down buildings at night and covering them with dirt. (Komadina denies that CCV has removed any structures in the valley, which is outside the area of the mine's current operations.)
The mayor can't explain why anyone would want to take down the old buildings. "We don't know why they're doing this," he says, "unless they're just slowly but surely slipping them out so they can say, 'There's nothing there to protect.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.