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In Cripple Creek and Victor's mining district, a story of a rare mineral, a dispute over a tunnel, and suspicions of what’s behind a welded-shut metal door unfolds

Black hole

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Jack McGee (left) and Ryan Blevins with a very special find from the Moffat Tunnel. - G COUCH
  • G Couch
  • Jack McGee (left) and Ryan Blevins with a very special find from the Moffat Tunnel.

There's a sudden, lung-punishing climb in elevation before the crest of the hilltop empties out onto a flat expanse of old mine ruins, dirt, conifers and patches of dead mountain grass.

From here, prospectors have, for generations, entered what is now an old, decrepit, 2-mile-long mining tunnel off Shelf Road in Teller County. The two men up here today are also seeking their fortunes. One points to the Moffat Tunnel and says, "That's it. That's our ole gal."

The tunnel's rotted wood awning tips precariously to the left like a tired old man who's seen a thing or two, its dark, open mouth reminiscent of a deep yawn.

There are a number of risks here to ward off the timid: hidden surveillance cameras, stinging nettle, snakes and the large rocks that have tumbled down from above and come to rest helter-skelter on top of the tunnel.

At Moffat's mouth, there's a gaping hole at the foot of a protective steel door, from which a whoosh of cold air escapes.

A mutual love for mining helped Ryan Blevins and Jack McGee, both of Cripple Creek, forge a friendship about a decade ago. Together, they spent years exploring the underground drifts of the Cripple Creek Mining District in search of an untapped vein of ore that would make them rich. The day Blevins purchased the rights to explore the historic Moffat Tunnel (not to be confused with the railroad tunnel of the same name off Rollins Pass) the men's efforts began to pay off.

Blevins didn't realize it at the time, but that decision would lead him to a discovery that he believes will make him a multi-millionaire. And McGee would make a grand find of his own — one he couldn't wait to share (and sell) to collectors and enthusiasts — one that was so rare it would make him famous in certain circles.

But in December of last year, Newmont Mining Corporation, the multi-billion dollar company that owns the Cripple Creek & Victor Mine that operates directly above the Moffat Tunnel, took legal action to block entry to the Moffat. Blevins was suddenly in the legal fight of his life. Little did he know that was just the first step into a dark maze — a rabbit hole that led to questions about mine safety, environmental oversight and community welfare. Those questions began just days before he was sued, when he says he and McGee followed the sound of rushing water in the Moffat Tunnel and noticed an odd smell and taste in their mouths. Like a penny, or a bad almond.

Without a headlamp, the interior of the Moffat Tunnel is an almost inexplicable black. Imagine, for a moment, holding your hand out in front of you and slowly bringing it toward your face, only to be completely surprised when the gap closes and the two touch. It might be tempting to use words like "void" and "infinite," to describe the sensory experience of this degree of darkness but in truth they too fall short.

It isn't just the tunnel's profound darkness that hints at a hostile environment; it's also the potential for falling rock, unpredictable temperatures, bad air, wildlife, fragile mine shafts and stopes (excavations in a mine to remove ore) — mapped and unmapped — that disappear thousands of feet into the earth. These conditions have always been a problem when it comes to mining; one might even say they are the nature of the beast.

"I own the Moffat Tunnel," says Blevins, 46. He originally hails from Oklahoma, but his attachment to the town of Cripple Creek runs deep; he says he's been visiting the area since he was 5 years old. Seeing all the history of the area in the form of mining relics sitting along old county roads (that don't exist anymore) had a huge impact on him in his youth. "I begged to come back here every year," he says, "and we did."

When Blevins was 13, he says he and his best friend explored the area's mines. They went to antique shops, bought old maps, and tried to figure out how they could enter the ground in Cripple Creek and follow the tunnels all the way to Victor. With at least 650 miles of underground tunnels to explore in the Mining District, he says it's a "damn wonder" he's still alive.

Despite his love for mining, Blevins spent many of his adult years in Oklahoma and North Dakota where he says he cultivated a career in environmental remediation. "My big background is environmental, in the oil fields. I worked all over the world," he says. Blevins eventually grew tired of the travel and politics associated with the industry. He was ready to live a happy, low-stress life and finally do what he'd always dreamed of. He says he liquidated his business and moved to Cripple Creek, putting the mining experience he'd picked up over the years to use as a small miner.

In June 2012, Blevins got the opportunity he had been waiting for. Willard Z. Wells, owner of West Star Gold, Inc., agreed to lease Blevins two claims (rights) that he believes allowed him to explore the Moffat Tunnel. Since then, he has dedicated his free time to researching the tunnel's history and the town he loves. He has also gone about doing what generations of miners have done before him: donned his hard hat, miner's lamp and work boots, stepped through the tunnel's entrance, and eye-balled its hard rock walls for still-secret lodes, veins and ledges. The goal? Gold.

The Moffat Tunnel, sometimes called the Gold Exploration Tunnel or the Ophelia Tunnel, is located about one mile south of the town of Cripple Creek and passes beneath what Newmont's website describes as "a 30 million year old volcanic-intrusive complex that erupted and intruded through rocks that are over one billion years old."

The tunnel was the brainchild of D.H. Moffat, an American financier and industrialist who knew that it would be important to pump problematic water out of the area so that miners could explore for valuable ore veins deeper in the earth. Construction began in 1896 and for two years water drained from the great bore at an estimated flow of up to 2,500 gallons per minute until it suddenly ran dry when another drainage tunnel was bored and began releasing large amounts of water. Other nearby tunnels ran dry too, indicating a certain interconnectedness and common water source deep underground. The tunnel's development resumed shortly thereafter and became a major asset to the local gold mining community, expediting and streamlining ore exploration and extraction in the Cripple Creek Mining District.

More than a century later, Blevins is one of a handful of small miners who lay claim to properties along the Moffat Tunnel and occasionally explore its workings while Newmont's mining operations carry on above. Until recently, it would appear, this hasn't been a problem. But now the historic tunnel is at the root of a bitter and complicated legal battle. Newmont and Blevins accuse each other of violating their respective property rights at the tunnel. Newmont argues, specifically, that Blevins has no legal right to enter the Moffat Tunnel through its front door to access his mining claims. Blevins believes otherwise.

"The first time I was ever in a mine I was 4 years old," recalls Jack McGee, 41. McGee is a lifelong resident of Cripple Creek and a fifth-generation miner. He says as a small child he would stand on a 5-gallon bucket and hold on to a rope as his grandma lowered him down to a ledge where his grandpa waited. "The only thing I really remember of being in a mine was holding onto that 5-gallon bucket, looking below me into nothing. There's just pitch-black nothing," he says.

To spend time with McGee is to come to know what an instinct and passion for hard rock mining looks like. "My grandpa had part of the Ajax grubstake," says McGee. "He was my best friend and he took me to do everything he did: fishing, gathering rocks, prospecting. He taught me about the gold; what it looks like and how to process it in this area. We would go through and explore all of the dump piles and we'd bring home these massive sacks of rocks. We'd just sit on the dump piles and crack 'em open and look if they're good — all day long — until we had to go back home."

McGee has piercing blue eyes and his expression is open and relaxed when you talk to him. He's polite, unassuming and funny as hell. Silver hangs from his neck and wraps around his fingers. Together McGee and his girlfriend, Laura Seymour, mine raw material and incorporate it into the jewelry they design and sell through their business, Trú Gems & Minerals.

In addition to running a small business, McGee leases the right to explore a mine claim that belongs to someone else, just as his grandfather once did. "All the equipment I use is mine. Everything is mine, and then I just pay a rent fee to be able to go in there," McGee explains. By "in there" he means the Moffat Tunnel. This is the arrangement he has with Blevins, whom he says he met in 2008, and why Blevins is the first person McGee called with news of a possibly unique discovery one winter night in 2014.

A slow-moving, boyish grin spreads slowly across McGee's face as he considers the moments leading up to his discovery. "Basically, we were just going for a walk — just an adventurous walk. We didn't really have any plans in mind," he begins. Accompanied by his sister, McGee was carrying a 6-inch hand chisel and a 2-pound sledgehammer. There was a vein structure he had noticed on a prior exploratory hike through the Moffat that he wanted to check out. His hope was to find a telluride specimen, a mineralogical treasure often distinguished by its bright silvery-white color.

Once inside the Moffat, McGee began to chip away at the desired vein. "Soon one little crystal came out — about an inch and a half long, maybe three-quarters of an inch wide," he recounts. "It was just a perfect spire of purple and clear, and the purple had perfect cubes on it and I knew that was fluorite right away. I also knew it was a rare crystal 'cause I'd never seen it before."

McGee describes the specimen as fluorite on quartz on barite after laumontite. And he believes he is the first to have found it. Experts at the Colorado School of Mines say it is not their place to determine who first discovered a mineral, but they analyzed the specimen for McGee and even purchased a sample from him to add to their collection.

Huge equipment is used at the CC&V mine, shown here in 2009. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • Huge equipment is used at the CC&V mine, shown here in 2009.

It is hard not to notice Newmont's Cripple Creek & Victor Mine. Its presence looms over the towns of Goldfield, Victor and Cripple Creek and its physical dominance is clear: haul trucks that, when loaded, can weigh more than 800,000 pounds are in perpetual motion — scuttling around like ants on their mound — moving and stacking ore 24 hours a day, seven days a week; long, black cyanide-pumping drip hoses snake up and down the mine's behemoth slopes; and several times each week there is a noticeable boom as another production blast goes off. But in addition to these tangible qualities, there is also an air of power and influence radiating off the mine that seems to cast a shadow over the towns that cling to it like a lifeline.

The current mining operation first began producing gold in 1995. Since then, CC&V has continued to pour tens of thousands of ounces each year, even as the mine's ownership has changed hands. This continues to be the case as Newmont, one of the largest mining companies in the world, begins its fourth year at the helm of CC&V. The growth and profitability of CC&V is staggering: 900,000 ounces of gold have been taken from the mine since August 2015. According to a report prepared for Newmont and the International Cyanide Management Institute by Golder Associates, Inc. in July 2017, this production rate should continue for CC&V "through 2025, with gold recovery carrying on for at least another seven years, followed by final reclamation and closure." This projection is underscored by the fact that earlier this summer, Newmont got the green light from Teller County Commissioners to expand CC&V's boundaries another 6 acres, an event that came and went with little fanfare and no dissent from area residents.

Is it surprising that people would hesitate to complain when their town depends upon the mine for its survival? In this case, Newmont claims it is the largest private sector employer in Teller County and approximately half of the mine's nearly 600 direct employees live in the county. Too, Newmont invests a sizable chunk of cash back into the communities in which it operates. According to Lorna Shaw, external relations manager for Newmont, in 2017, through Newmont's Community Investment Program and a series of other investments in local education and the community, a total of more than $600,000 was invested locally. She adds that of that amount, "92% of the donation dollars were given to organizations or projects that would provide benefit to residents of Victor and Cripple Creek specifically." And if that isn't enough to prove CC&V's philanthropic dedication to the towns that anchor it, consider this: CC&V spent more than $1.5 million on historic preservation in the area in 2017.

Still, not everyone who lives in the shadow of the mine is happy.

"Two little miners doing their own thing, and big corporate comes in because we're in their way, some way or another, and tries to bully us out," laments Blevins as he reflects on everything that has happened since he hiked up to the Moffat Tunnel one day last spring to look at some structures in the mine and do some mapping. As he approached the tunnel, Blevins was shocked to find its access gate locked and its portal door welded shut.

Court documents obtained by the Independent reveal that Newmont security personnel locked down the Moffat Tunnel in May of 2017 after learning of "unauthorized activities" within the tunnel. Prior to welding the door shut, Newmont removed an ATV, a trailer and several pieces of mining equipment that Blevins had left inside the tunnel. They also took a fluorite specimen McGee had found and left behind on the back of Blevins' ATV.

CC&V staff locked and welded shut the tunnel door repeatedly. - STACIE GONZALEZ
  • Stacie Gonzalez
  • CC&V staff locked and welded shut the tunnel door repeatedly.

The tunnel's lock-down was followed by a flurry of back-and-forth activity between Blevins and Newmont, including in-person meetings, written communications, around-the-clock video surveillance of the tunnel by both sides and repeated dismantling and destruction of the welded tunnel door. Unable to persuade Blevins to stay out of the tunnel, Newmont, through its subsidiary, Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company LLC, enlisted the help of two Denver attorneys with Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP who specialize in environmental and natural resources litigation. On Dec. 19, 2017, CC&V filed suit against Blevins and West Star Gold, Inc. in Teller County District Court for trespass and conversion (or appropriating CC&V's property).

"We had no choice but to take legal action since the trespassers were not willing to engage in good-faith dialogue," Shaw says. "We have blocked access to the tunnel several times only to have our locks and doors illegally tampered with and removed. Through the courts, we now have a preliminary injunction, preventing the trespassers from coming onto CC&V's property or accessing the Moffat Tunnel."

West Star Gold, having sold its Moffat Tunnel claims to Blevins and two others earlier that month on Dec. 6, immediately distanced itself from the dispute. Blevins, on the other hand, will tell you he's not the kind of guy to take a beating lying down. He retained counsel of his own, Stephen Bain, with Welborn Sullivan Meck & Tooley, P.C., and welcomed the opportunity to have his voice heard in court. "You can't own a tunnel like you do a lot or a mining claim," Blevins contends. "What determines who owns a tunnel is who owns the portal. The portal is the entrance to the tunnel. So, whoever controls that entrance owns the entity of the tunnel, and that's in the mining laws. And that's what we own — is the portal. And then we have leases on additional mining claims that the tunnel accesses us to."

Court records paint a complicated picture of how the property in and around the Moffat Tunnel is owned, and who has rights to what. Picture a two-track dirt road branching off Teller County's Shelf Road. A locked, metal access gate regulates travel up this dirt road. If you have a key to the gate, you can pass through it and follow the dirt road uphill, across two parcels — the Bush and Maud S. patented mining claims — toward the Moffat Tunnel's entrance. The road, the gate and the two parcels are owned by CC&V. The entrance to the tunnel, which marks the beginning of the tunnel's portal, sits on a parcel owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Blevins owns the unpatented mining claim to this BLM parcel which gives him the right to explore or mill on it. This right is undisputed.

Approximately 50 feet inside the Moffat Tunnel is the boundary (imagine an invisible wall) between the BLM parcel and another parcel owned by CC&V. And then about 30 feet beyond this boundary, on CC&V property, is where the welded-shut door is, blocking further access to the tunnel. Beyond this door are several parcels of private property owned by third parties, three of which Blevins claims to have assay rights to. According to CC&V, after the tunnel passes through the third-party parcels, it crosses back into CC&V-owned property for its duration.

Ultimately, there are two legal questions at the heart of this dispute: Does Blevins have any right to leave the BLM parcel he has a claim to and cross onto CC&V's private property to access other mining claims within the Moffat Tunnel? And does CC&V have the right to close a tunnel which has been used for over a century by numerous parties to access their minerals?

According to CC&V, Blevins — who CC&V attorneys repeatedly point out doesn't actually own any land in the disputed area — is going to have to jump several hurdles to win his case. First, he will have to prove he has standing to even bring a claim to establish an implied easement through the Moffat Tunnel to mining claims. Next, he'll have to explain why he has a right to cross CC&V's private property to access those claims, particularly when a public road runs across the surface of them and he can excavate his own, new entrance to the tunnel from there. Third, Blevins will have to establish that using the tunnel's front door to access underground ore is a necessity. And, finally, to win his claim for a prescriptive easement, the small miner will need to establish: 1) open and notorious use; 2) continuous use without effective interruption for 18 years; and 3) adverse use (an element that appears to be met in CC&V's refusal to grant Blevins permission to use the tunnel).

A Response to Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Blevins' attorney in the case reflects Blevins' staunch belief that he does, indeed, have a right to use the Moffat Tunnel's front door to access his mining interests. It also strives to paint a worrisome picture of how a large corporation can use its power to intimidate and coerce smaller interests into giving up their contractual and property rights.

Blevins (left) with legal paperwork and McGee with fluorite specimens. - STACIE GONZALEZ
  • Stacie Gonzalez
  • Blevins (left) with legal paperwork and McGee with fluorite specimens.

In his Response, Blevins counters each of CC&V's arguments. He explains to the court that not only does he hold assay agreements that give him contractual and property rights to explore for and extract minerals from certain third-party claims within the tunnel, using the tunnel — specifically its front door — for access and transportation is the only practical and economical way of exploring and mining those claims. He also says Colorado statutes and case law support his counterclaims for an implied easement, a statutory tunnel right-of-way, a way of necessity and an easement by prescription. These laws exist, Blevins claims, "to prevent precisely the type of pointless and selfish obstruction that Newmont seeks to impose on the development of mining claims that they do not control."

It doesn't take long to see just how complicated the disagreement between CC&V and Blevins is, and the casual observer might even wonder why, after more than a century, has access to the Moffat Tunnel through its portal door suddenly become a pressing issue? Blevins says he has been accessing the tunnel since 2012 and says Newmont's predecessor, AngloGold Ashanti, was aware of his activities. Furthermore, why would forcing Blevins to sink a new, secondary entrance from a public road to access gold, which at some points is 800 feet below, be preferable to using the tunnel's front door? Is it safer? Does it make sense from an environmental or economic standpoint? Blevins questions the company's long-range objective: "It's like Newmont woke up one morning and just decided they were going to take the tunnel."

Shaw explains Newmont's perspective: "For us, it is a safety risk. It is unsafe for anyone to be in an unmaintained historic tunnel. This 100% comes down to safety." Closing known tunnels to trespassers and mapping underground workings is all part of Newmont's recent efforts to support the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Stay Out – Stay Alive campaign and warn people about the dangers of exploring and playing on active and abandoned mine sites, Shaw says.

"We are a surface mine. We are not an underground mine," Shaw says. "We do not have the resources and the ability to perform an underground mine rescue." She also points out that people who venture down into mines or climb up on historic mining structures are not only putting themselves in harm's way, but they're also endangering first responders.

A Jan. 26, 2018, hearing transcript in the CC&V/Blevins case reveals that CC&V was conducting mine rescue training in the Moffat Tunnel until 2007. In this transcript, Jeff Roberts, security supervisor and a member of CC&V's mine rescue team until 2016 testifies, "It got to the point where it would take more of our training day just to make it safe to get into the tunnel than it was worth."

CC&V was granted a temporary restraining order by a judge. - STACIE GONZALEZ
  • Stacie Gonzalez
  • CC&V was granted a temporary restraining order by a judge.

But Blevins says it's hard to believe CC&V wants him out of the tunnel for his own good. He says the mine is safe for the experienced miner and says footage captured on his game cam even shows CC&V's lawyers entering the tunnel without safety gear on. Blevins believes Newmont is motivated by more pressing concerns: They either want control of the tunnel for expansion purposes, or they're hiding an environmental problem.

During the five years leading up to Blevins' tussle with Newmont, he and McGee spent a good deal of time mapping, testing and locating ore within the Moffat Tunnel. Blevins now claims he's confident they know where the good stuff is. "We have about $60 million proven reserves so far which, to us, is a good chunk of money," he says. Not to mention McGee is making bank on eBay and area rock, gem and mineral shows where he can sell the collection of rare fluorite crystals he excavated from the tunnel. Taking these ventures into consideration, it's understandable that the two men would not want to lose access.

While Blevins moves through the discovery phase of litigation, trading reams of documentation with Newmont's lawyers, he and McGee continue to puzzle over the company's behavior. They also continue to think about something they claim to have witnessed back in December while mapping the Moffat Tunnel's workings: running water.

The water first presented itself as a distant burble heard from the main tunnel, they say. Blevins and McGee followed the sound down a drift they had never explored before and it got progressively louder. By the time they reached its source, the two men say they could no longer hear each other's voices. According to Blevins, all they could do was stand and stare. He says the steady stream of water, which he estimates was 18-inches wide, was cascading from the ceiling of the 8-foot-tall tunnel. It was flowing fast, he says, like an open fire hydrant — and as the water hit the floor, it disappeared into the ground.

"It was loud, like LOUD!" exclaims McGee. "Two hundred feet away, down a different drift, you couldn't hear each other talk. That's loud." Blevins agrees and likens what he heard to a waterfall. "To hear the water like he just described ... that's an event," says Blevins.

It's an event because normally they say the tunnel muffles sound, so you could be screaming at someone 200 feet away under normal conditions and not hear anything. Blevins and McGee say they have never seen water of that magnitude in the tunnel before. What's even more alarming, they say, is the stream appeared to be exiting an area located directly under CC&V's Squaw Gulch Valley Leach Facility, and when the men exited that section of the tunnel, an odd smell lingered on their clothing and they each had a strange taste in their mouth — McGee likened it to a bad almond, but Blevins said it was more like copper or sucking on a penny. Cyanide can't be smelled by everyone, but for those with the nose for it, it's said to be reminiscent of a "bitter almond."

What does CC&V's leach facility have to do with the water Blevins and McGee discovered in the Moffat Tunnel? Blevin and McGee say a great deal, potentially.

The leach facility plays an important role in how CC&V produces its gold. According to a page on Newmont's website, titled, "Life Cycle of a Mine," low-grade ore is either "dumped directly on a leach pad" or "crushed and stacked on top of slightly sloped ground that has been lined with an impermeable plastic." Leaching solvent (usually a weak cyanide solution) soaks the ore using drip irrigation, causing precious metals to dissolve into the solution. The solution drips slowly to storage ponds at the base of the leach pad — a process that can take upwards of two months. Once collected, process facilities extract gold from the solution. Cyanide levels are readjusted in the leftover liquid, so it can be reused in the process.

Right about the time Blevins and McGee say they discovered the unusual water flow in the Moffat Tunnel, the Squaw Gulch Valley Leach Facility suffered a slope failure above the tunnel. Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety records reveal that on a date believed to be Dec. 16, 2017, non-crushed ore was dumped 200 feet to an area of down-sloping ground and contacted the drain cover fill for the facility's geomembrane liner. The liner is a protective barrier that is designed to contain and control metallurgical processing fluids, including cyanide chemicals used in the leaching process.

Initially, CC&V did not report the slope failure, the possibility of a rip in its liner, or the potential loss of containment of cyanide through the rip to DRMS. The state agency's inspectors discovered the problem on their own during a routine inspection on Feb. 27, 2018. Shaw defends her company's delay in reporting the December incident to DRMS: "The damage to the liner was not known at the time of the event and was not actually confirmed until April 2018. We believed we were complying with Colorado laws and regulations throughout the incident." She says CC&V's obligation is to report as soon as they know. "We didn't report until we knew. You can't report something you don't know."

Ultimately, Newmont admitted to violating Colorado law and the terms of their 112d-3 permit. The company was ordered to pay a civil penalty of $32,500, cease and desist any further leaching activities within 500 feet of the impacted slope area and satisfy several corrective action items (including monitoring for leaks) outlined in a July 30, 2018, Mined Land Reclamation Board order.

Monitoring wells ensure mining chemicals are within safe limits. - STACIE GONZALEZ
  • Stacie Gonzalez
  • Monitoring wells ensure mining chemicals are within safe limits.

All of this really chafes Blevins who accuses Newmont of consistently violating its state permits. In addition to vocalizing his concerns on the Facebook page, Small Miners vs. NewMont Mining, he has reported his concerns to DRMS. In an April 15, 2018, email to Tony Waldron, Minerals Program Supervisor for DRMS, Blevins requested a meeting and emphasized that he was "99% sure that Newmont has an ongoing leak from VLF 2 [Squaw Gulch Valley Leach Facility] entering into some old mine workings."

Four days later, on April 19, Meg Burt, Newmont's senior environmental manager, submitted a formal report regarding CC&V's December 2017 slope failure to DRMS. The report confirms several tears in the liner were discovered and reiterates CC&V's commitment to voluntarily cease leaching within 500 feet of the investigation area.

"Yeah the state comes in, slaps some hands, ruffles some feathers, makes some poor environmental consultant for the company or the regulatory girl jump through some hoops and loops, but that's as far as it goes," complains Blevins. He says the big mine thinks it can do anything it wants because it is operating in a small community. "This is our tunnel," he says, "and it all starts adding up as to why they want us out of here."

A CC&V spokesperson did not respond to the Indy's questions about the waterfall Blevins and McGee claim to have witnessed, though they earlier said the leach facility has never leaked. And currently, there is no hard evidence to support the theory that cyanide leaching solution is leaking or has leaked from the liner.

But that hasn't stopped Blevins and McGee from wondering what would happen if cyanide leaching solution did find its way through the mine's leach pad liner and down into a lower level of the mine. Could it, somehow, reach the drinking water supply? The Independent posed this question to Russ Means, senior environmental protection specialist for DRMS, and he said that scenario isn't feasible because there are numerous environmental protection facilities and redundant systems in place. He also said the rip happened when employees were loading the slope with ore so there was no solution involved in the area. "That was one of the first things that we checked for," says Means.

Despite what the experts and the mine's representatives say, Blevins and McGee remain unconvinced. Studying a satellite image of the Moffat Tunnel, Blevins says, "Imagine in your mind water takes the easiest path." The water, he speculates, could make its way through tunnels, cracks and fissures and avoid the monitoring wells.

Blevins and McGee think they (or someone) ought to be allowed access to the Moffat to test that running water they say they saw months back. But any testing will likely have to wait until the CC&V/Blevins court case is resolved and the current restraining order is lifted.

Means dismisses Blevins' theory about the potential for underground buildup of water and solution. "A lot of that is speculative," he says. Means prefers to place his confidence in the mine's protective collection systems that are monitored weekly and sometimes more than that. "If there is any kind of detection or anything along those lines," he says, "they (the mine) are required to report them to us and we have not had any kind of report of that nature." Means also points to compliance wells positioned around the mine and says that the samples taken from them have always tested clean for cyanide.

Newmont's Shaw also seeks to diffuse concern regarding a cyanide leak. "The heap leach operates as a zero-discharge facility where nothing is released to the environment," Shaw says. "All processing solution applied to the heap is collected, the gold is recovered, and the solution is recycled and reapplied to the heap." She confirms that the Squaw Gulch is supported by "a system of redundant protective features designed to contain process solution," including double- and sometimes triple-layered lining, as well as an elaborate leak-detection system underneath the lining. "The facility has never leaked," she says, adding that various systems are being monitored daily and weekly to ensure against leaks.

"The drains remain dry, just as we expect, and the heap leach is functioning as designed."

It's too soon to tell how the Moffat Tunnel legal dispute will turn out, but one thing is certain and that is that Newmont has the resources to devastate Blevins financially if the case drags on too long. Furthermore, a win for Newmont would mean that the fate of the historic tunnel is in its control.

Shaw says that Newmont's land and legal teams have established that Newmont is the lawful owner of, and has full responsibility for, the portion of the Moffat Tunnel that traverses CC&V's private property. "Both the BLM and the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety have been consulted and recommend that we permanently prevent access to the tunnel," she says. DRMS' Means denies the state agency has been working with Newmont to seal the tunnel. "There has been no discussion about that," he says. "That's under litigation between CC&V and some other parties, and that's an access issue that we don't have any jurisdiction over."

Means has declined to comment as to the condition of the Moffat Tunnel and what would need to happen to respect individual property rights while keeping the public and the environment safeguarded.

Blevins says that he owns the rights to the entrance to the Moffat. - STACIE GONZALEZ
  • Stacie Gonzalez
  • Blevins says that he owns the rights to the entrance to the Moffat.

But Shaw says that once the litigation is resolved, Newmont will move to shutter the tunnel. "We would like to prevent access to it as a safety measure," she says, "but we're waiting until the court case is settled before the closure is permanent." Beyond this, Shaw says that the tunnel is not part of CC&V's expansion initiatives: "We're not intending to mine there at all."

When asked why he's willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars fighting over access to the Moffat — aside from the obvious profit motive — Blevins is adamant: "It's a historical tunnel. It's always been used for right-of-way and exploration uses. That's the reason why the tunnel was built: to access other properties underground. And the history that goes with that is incredible. It's some of the only history that's left [intact] in this mining district and I don't want to see that being destroyed. On another note, it's ours."

Blevins is pretty sure his legal battle with CC&V will go to trial, but even if the court rules against him and he loses access to the Moffat Tunnel through its portal, he says he will try to excavate a secondary entry at what he estimates to be a cost of $200,000. He'll have to if he wants to pursue the gold that he says is waiting for him some 800 feet underground. McGee's crystals are also waiting. The friends say they wish more people would come forward when they learn of permit violations at the mine and property conflicts with Newmont — issues they believe aren't limited to their claim.

"You can hide under a rock or you can say what needs to be said," reasons McGee as he considers the power and influence large corporations can yield. "The way history works, when they're doin' it at this level now, in 40 years, they'll be doing this to peoples' houses."

McGee isn't alone in his cynicism toward large corporations. But, asked if they have their own problems with CC&›, the folks up the pass are pretty tight-lipped. As the old saying goes: Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

Of course, lips could get looser in the years to come, and perhaps reveal tales as compelling as this one. After all, nothing lasts forever, including the benefits that come with having a large gold mining operation in your backyard.

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