Longform

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."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast