Bus after bus unloaded hundreds of people in hard hats and protective glasses who wanted a glimpse of the new wastewater treatment plant at the Climax Molybdenum mine.
At 10,500 feet above sea level, they climbed stairs through a maze of shiny silver metal and bright yellow guardrails. They paused for only a moment here and there to ponder what that chemical smell might have been, where that sloshing water sound was coming from and how those buttons, pipes and pumps worked.
Climax unveiled its latest and greatest technology Thursday during a tour of its new $200 million water treatment plant, which started discharging into the Ten Mile Creek about 5 miles south of Copper Mountain on July 7.
The plant was built to replace the former second stage of the mine’s water treatment system, a tailings pond now used to deposit leftover rock from mining operations that restarted in 2012 after a 17-year hiatus.
“We’ve very proud of what we did,” said Ray Lazuk, the mine’s environmental manager. “Lot of hard work went into it.”
About 400 people attended a presentation about the plant at the Copper Conference Center in Copper Mountain, including the Summit County commissioners, town mayors, town and county managers, state legislators, Denver Water employees, former Climax employees, local residents and concerned citizens.
Since January 2012, the mine, an econonomic giant in the High Country, has paid Summit and Lake counties $14.5 million in taxes.
Climax is the largest private landowner in Summit County, said County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier.
And though the actual mining happens in Lake County, most of the mine’s holdings lie in Summit, including the water treatment plant.
“We tried to get them to build the water treatment plant in Lake County, but it didn’t work,” said Lake County Commissioner Bruce Hix with a laugh.
Several speakers touched on the High Country’s intimate knowledge of mining operations that were not careful stewards of the land. However, politician after politician lauded Climax’s social contributions and environmental reclamation work.
“Climax is a model of how to do it right,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, and the 40 or 50 Climax employees lining the ballroom clapped. The mine’s operations, she said, show that industry and the environment aren’t exclusive interests.
Colorado had about 23,000 abandoned mine sites when mining laws were passed in 1977, said Ginny Brannon, director of the state’s Divison of Mining Reclamation and Safety. Since then, about 9,000 have been reclaimed, she said, and Climax has been an important partner on reclamation projects of mining sites they were not associated with.
A BRIEF HISTORY
A short film about the mine accompanied the presentation and explained how to pronounce molybdenum (moh-lib-dih-num) as well as how Climax got its name from a nearby train station when helper locomotives were uncoupled after a long climb on the route from Denver to Leadville.
The mine began operations in 1918. Its molybdenum is used mainly in steel alloys, and early operations produced the metal to armor battle vehicles in both World Wars.
After operating on and off in the 1980s and at reduced capacities from 1989 to 1991, the mine suspended operations in 1995.
Freport-McMoRan Copper and Gold bought the mine in 2007, and the company announced it would restart operations. Climax began producing molybdenum commercially again in 2012.
Once the largest underground mine in the world, the mine is now an open pit mine. The pit is 1 to 1.5 miles in diameter and 1,900 feet deep; eventually it will reach a depth of 3,000 feet.
Besides valuable metal, the mine also produces waste called tailings, or tiny pieces of leftover rock. The tailings are detrimental to the surrounding ecosystem because they expose sulfides and metal compounds to oxygen in the air causing acid drainage and toxic concentrations of metals in the water.
The mine historically has used a two-stage process to treat its wastewater with two tailing storage facilities, or pond areas enclosed with dams where the tailings are pumped to allow the separation of the solid particles from the water.
This new wastewater treatment plant was built to replace the lower tailings pond, called the Mayflower Tailings Storage Facility, said the mine’s general manager Erich Bower.
“We were always in compliance with the standards of our permit,” he said. “This plant just gives us the ability to not only meet them but to go well beyond them.”
He said the company is always looking for ways to improve its methods.
“We anticipate standards becoming stricter and stricter,” he said. “We try to stay ahead of any regulation that’s coming.”
Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said the county worked with the mine since it started designing the plant in 2011.
The mine addressed all the concerns the county raised, Gibbs said, including worries about wetlands protection and how the facilities would look in terms of height, light pollution and proximity to the highway.
Liz Velasquez, a Leadville resident since 1978, attended the event with her 14-year-old son Adam. They said they now understand and appreciate more of what Climax does.
“It’s just nice to know how the whole process works and (that) they work to improve the environment instead of just dumping stuff,” she said.
The tailings pond where the company has done recent work used to be an eyesore, she said, and looks “a whole lot better than it used to.”
Back in the early 1980s, she said, when the mine employed about 3,000 people. Tourists would drive by and think they had just passed a beach because of the amount of tailings there.
“I don’t think they cared back then. Now they realize the impact on the environment.”