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Perhaps it’s impossible for us to recreate the mindset of a new arrival to the pristine high meadows of the Rockies in the late 1800s. Surrounded by 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks buried in snow, trekking untouched stands of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine, startling grazing herds of deer and elk, those settlers looked up and immediately thought of what to start tearing down. Mining was the draw for Easterners, the rich layers of gold, silver, and eventually, tangentially, molybdenum that had bubbled up with the precious metals in ancient lava.
A winding road between 40-foot vertical benches allows machinery to load and haul out rock for processing on Sept. 18 as the Climax mine atop Fremont Pass plunges deeper into the earth. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
A combination of natural algae and minerals left after ore has been processed to extract molybdenum turns water stored in tailings ponds along Colorado 91 a vibrant green. The water in the ponds may be reused in the future or recycled to reclaim the remaining minerals. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
The damage that mining did, and is still doing, in Colorado’s high country is evident from the comfort of a drive-by in vehicles that rely on all those metals, as travelers climb from the flowing slopes of Copper Mountain ski area up Fremont Pass toward Leadville. The Climax molybdenum mine has for a century gouged, pummeled, poured and drained the majestic Tenmile Range and the valley floors below.
Molybdenum gathered from the Climax mine is added to stainless steel to make it more durable in such applications as transportation, construction and agriculture. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
There’s a simple explanation for the unnatural colors, the exploded horizon, the artificial contours that catch the eye between Leadville and Copper Mountain: It takes 2,000 pounds of ore to get 5 pounds of molybdenum. And our appetite for metal — not “someone else’s appetite,” but all of ours — appears endless. The steel-strengthening, lead-colored powder is essential not just for “old” industries, but for solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, train rails — the list is as long as the regulations that control modern mining.
The discharge of processed water, filled with minerals mixed with sulfur, potassium and metallic elements, from a Climax mine pipeline flows toward retention ponds. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Topsoil rich in natural iron content, which colors it red, is salvaged from the Climax mine stockpiled nearby. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
While Climax will clearly be a centurieslong reclamation project, it’s also very much a current, thriving, round-the-clock economic engine for the central Colorado mountain communities. Moly demand has 24/7 shifts of 370 people digging and pulverizing rock 365 days a year, under the direction of multinational mining giant Freeport-McMoRan. Climax says the mine and its sister moly mine at Henderson have an annual economic impact of nearly $450 million in Colorado.
A stockpile of topsoil awaits for reclamation process at the base of Climax mine. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Surely it can’t be great that all those heavy metals and industrial chemicals flow downhill toward Summit County’s biggest towns. In a state where we’re warned not to put one foot on Alpine tundra for fear of setting arid plants back a decade, how many years will it take to reclaim tiers of hard rock benches pulled down in 40-foot increments?
The Climax mine began operating nearly a century ago. It fills ponds along Colorado 91 with tailings waste left over after molybdenum is milled. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
A stream of minerals flows into the tailing ponds from the mine in the former town of Kokomo. Though many people know molybdenum as an essential component of stainless steel, it also is a trace element found in foods such legumes and grains that helps the body process proteins, alcohol, drugs and toxins, nutrition experts say. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
The state says it is watching carefully, with numerous water monitoring requirements on Climax and updated mining reclamation bonds of $92 million. Climax is building new environmental containment projects below its tailings ponds, and “multiple reclamation test plot projects” are underway, according to state health regulators. Climax is in compliance with the water quality permit that controls discharges into Tenmile Creek, the state said.
Tailings storage areas have sludge cells used to contain water as it is being treated. The storage cells with red colors are a result of iron removed from the water, while the yellow-colored material is typical tailings, which is ground rock that remains after molybdenum has been removed. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Climax says the evidence of an ongoing commitment to reclamation, even as they dig deeper and deeper into the mountain, is in each of these aerial photos. New scars of red, iron-rich soil in high meadows are places where healthy topsoil is scraped and stored to eventually cover spent tailings piles. Geometric road grids in tan fields of crushed rock are for spray trucks to keep the dust down. One valley floor habitat is being regrown with a mix of biosolids from Summit County’s human waste, wood chips from local beetle-killed pines and that red-tinged topsoil.
The mine salvages the available topsoil after it is dug up from mountain sides during the mining operations. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
The average hiker or camping tourist may have to squint hard to see the future of reclamation atop Fremont Pass. The scars are deep. What we can hope for, years if not decades from now, is a follow-up aerial photo shoot that can pinpoint hope in the “before” and “after.”
Mine managers say their tailing pond design, seen here, takes a proactive approach to protecting natural waters. An intricate system of channels diverts storm runoff and snowmelt around the pond and discharges it downstream. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Hugh covers a variety of topics for The Colorado Sun, with a focus on outdoor and Western topics, environment, and breaking news. Prior to working for The Sun, Hugh was a daily news photographer/videographer in Utah, Michigan, Wyoming, and within...
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Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...
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