Another year, another round of fines, state orders and recommendations to revoke the permit of the hopeful silver- and gold-seeking Wildcat Mining Corp.
Yet, in what could be the operator’s last chance to meet state requirements, Wildcat president George Robinson said Friday the mine in La Plata Canyon could open as early as October.
“We’re in good shape,” Robinson said of the Mayday-Idaho mining complex about 16 miles northwest of Durango. “We’re just waiting for good weather.”
The saga of Wildcat Mining started in 2008 when then-owner James Clements illegally began operations at the long-inactive mine without obtaining a state permit.
Among the litany of violations, Clements notably cut a road through the banks of the La Plata River, blasted two mine portals that eventually collapsed, and built a mill inside the workings.
The rogue work caught the attention of the Colorado Division of Mining, Reclamation and Safety, which determined conditions posed serious human health and environmental risks.
Over several years, an exhausting back-and-forth of state orders and failures to comply ensued, culminating in 2013 with the suspension of Wildcat’s permit.
Russ Means, a senior environmental specialist with the mining division, said since 2008, there have been 26 official inspections and at least 15 stop-by visits that resulted in six violations, four of which are unresolved. Wildcat has been fined $81,000 – though $55,000 of that remains suspended.
In 2013, Robinson, previously a project manager, took over as president of the company, claiming he would right Wildcat’s wrongs. As part of an agreement with the state, Wildcat, the following year, shelled out $600,000 to bring the illegally cut road under compliance.
Yet when no additional corrective actions were completed in 2015, the mining division in December brought the company before the governor-appointed Mined Land Reclamation Board.
It was the third time since 2010 the division asked the board to revoke Wildcat’s permit.
“Revocation is serious, and the division doesn’t take that lightly,” mining division attorney Jeff Fugate told the board. “But how many chances do you give a company to do right before you just say enough?”
The division and board in January decided at least one more chance was warranted.
In a marathon December session that was continued to January, Wildcat pleaded its case that investor dollars have been erratic at best.
“In this economy, it’s just awful to raise money,” Wildcat’s attorney Chris Neumann told the board.
Neumann said Wildcat has spent about $1 million on repairs at the site, and only has an estimated $180,000 more to go to complete state demands.
In January, Wildcat investor Jack Nielsen, a rancher in North Platte, Nebraska, assured the board the funds were secured and dedicated to bringing Mayday-Idaho under compliance.
After the six-member board agonized for several hours, it agreed: Wildcat has until July 1 to end an almost decade-long run of violations, and must pay a $10,000 fine.
Robinson, the fourth president in the firm’s eight years, said repairs – stabilizing two collapsed portals and cleaning up the mess in Little Deadwood Gulch – should take about six weeks. He expects work to begin next week and to be completed by the July 1 deadline. The state has said if there is substantial evidence remediation is underway, Wildcat can apply for an extension.
And, if all goes smoothly, Robinson said the Mayday-Idaho site – last seriously bored in 1942 – could begin extracting precious metals in October.
However, state and county permitting processes make that a bit of a pipe dream. County planning engineer Victoria Schmitt said straightforward applications can take up to five months to process. Means said the state permitting process for mines is eight to 12 months, which could be lengthened by public objections.
And Wildcat has its critics.
One of those is Phil Vigil, a member of an embittered coalition of residents adjacent to the mine that has led a vitriolic campaign against opening La Plata Canyon to mining.
“As far as a resident, there’s no accountability for us,” said Vigil, who moved to the canyon in 1997. “They’ve knocked down trees, endangered wetlands, and there’s a lack of accountability from both the state and county as far as protecting the residents.”
Robinson said the company will take the utmost caution over environmental risks and neighbor complaints. Noise will be mitigated, ore will be hauled and processed off-site and drilling operations require only about 8 gallons of water per minute.
With the recovering price of silver and gold, Robinson said the operation could employ up to 20 miners for at least 10 years. He estimated at least 100,000 ounces of gold and nearly five times that in silver remain in the mine workings. Surveyors also are intrigued by an unknown amount of tellurium, a mineral used for solar panels.
“There’s a tendency to think of mining as a huge and massive operation, but this is a small mine,” said Robinson, who roughly calculated five to six daily truck hauls.
If Wildcat does not complete repairs, the state could seize the company’s $204,562 bond and hire a contractor to do the work. Then, Wildcat could potentially restart the permit process for the 275-acre private property. The company owns the Idaho complex and leases the Mayday.
“The division has asked for revocation a couple times here, and the board elected not to pull the trigger on that,” Means told The Durango Herald. “It has a long history, and a lot of it is not pretty. In this case, it’s their last chance.”