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Gunnison County is crisscrossed with trout streams offering some 825 miles of some of the best fishing in the state. Along the East River between Crested Butte and Gunnison is the Roaring Judy state hatchery, one of the three largest in the state and the only one breeding salmon. Every year the Roaring Judy releases 3½ to 4 million fingerling trout, as well as 700,000 catchable rainbows into the southwest part of the state.
The superintendent of the hatchery, Ray McDonald, is cautious about the possible deleterious effect of a mine, but he isn't alarmed. "On the average, I don't think we're going to be affected too much by it," he says. "The biggest effect might be from the tailings pond AMAX is talking about building in Alkali Basin about six miles from here. [A tailings pond is a reinforced pit serving as a depository for the earth removed from a mine. After being processed to extract the molybdenum, the earth is slimy and semipoisonous. For every 100 pounds of earth removed from Mount Emmons, 99.6 pounds would become tailings. It is estimated that Alkali Basin could hold 305 million tons.] From Alkali Basin, there is a gradual slope that runs down to the East River. I suppose if the tailings pond leaked, five or six miles of the East River would be polluted. If there was an earthquake or a flood, the Gunnison River would also probably be contaminated, maybe 20 to 25 miles of streams altogether, and they all flow into Blue Mesa Reservoir. But I'm sure any tailings pond would be solid. I presume AMAX will take every precaution they can so that a break won't happen, because a break would be catastrophic.
"AMAX is wanting to do the right thing, and I'm sure they are. We're all concerned about groundwater as well as stream water, and AMAX is making monthly and quarterly water-quality reports. They're testing the trout in country streams for minerals and monitoring fish population. AMAX is doing all that voluntarily. I'm all for that kind of thing.
"A mine is going to be good for this county. It will help the working man. Mining is the root of our existence; everything comes from the earth. Everything changes. If we didn't have change, we'd all be dinosaurs. I don't know how you can stop it. I don't know if you want to. It's federal land, it belongs to everybody."
The one man in Gunnison County holding the most potential power in the issue is Mike Curran, the district ranger. Curran is in charge of compiling the official Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed mine, a job that could take a minimum of 18 more months. He accepts the responsibility with resignation rather than relish. Curran spends a lot of his time explaining what the Forest Service cannot do, which is:
•Deny any valid mineral development application.
•Deny the exploratory and developmental activities of any bonafide mining concern.
•Restrict any reasonable mining activities.
His power lies in the interpretation of the word "reasonable." The Crested Butte Town Council would define the word one way, AMAX would define it another.
"This is a classic case, and I think it's enormously significant," says Curran. "It's just the tip of the iceberg. It's a prototype for the '80s. AMAX has told us they intend to have a mine here and, under the terms of the 1872 law, actually they can do nearly anything they want. But they're trying to bend over backward to go along with us. They're striving to go beyond any environmental protections that have ever been taken.