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Climax Mine: Lessons Learned From One of Colorado's Most Significant Mining Sites

The market and increasing costs of environmental compliance will dictate whether mining activity at this mine ramps up


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Colorado has a deep history in mineral extraction, dating back to the 1800s, extending beyond coal to include metals like gold, silver and molybdenum.

The Climax Mine, which first opened in 1918, was at its peak the largest molybdenum mine in the world. The mine provided critical materials during World War I and World War II to the U.S and its allies and employed more than 3,000 Coloradans.

Molybdenum – commonly called moly – is a metallic element used to harden steel. Moly has a very high melting point and low expansion when heated, helping enhance the durability, toughness and performance of steel alloys. During war times, molybdenum was invaluable in the making of weapons-grade steel, armor and aircraft engines. Over time, the mineral was applied toward production of pigments, fertilizers and high-temperature alloys for jet and rocket engines, as well as various automotive parts.

By the 1970s, the Climax Mine had mined 500 million tons of molybdenite ore and  recovered 2 billion pounds of elemental molybdenum with a value of $4 billion – one of the world’s highest single-mine production records. But with the economic recession of 1980 and decrease in U.S. steel demand due to foreign competition, operations at the mine were suspended and thereafter, the mine has operated sporadically in a continuing weak molybdenum market. The mine closed again in recent years due to weak prices for molybdenum.

While commodity price is a significant factor in the future of the Climax Mine, environmental factors are a major consideration as well. Over its history, the Climax Mine has seen several upgrades to its operations, including newer equipment and above-ground pit mining (as opposed to open-pit), all of which help reduce environmental impacts. But for many nearby residents and other stakeholders, these improvements may not be enough.

For example, near Crested Butte, there is a proposed molybdenum mine site on Mt. Emmons that the Denver Post calls “the longest running mine fight in the West. This mining site is one of Colorado’s most controversial, and involves a decades-long battle between government, various companies with claims to extract the resource, environmentalists and other concerned citizens fighting to protect scenic land overlooking downtown Crested Butte. Whether a community opposes mining, such as Crested Butte, or embraces mining due to its economic benefits, such as Leadville (almost our State capitol), environmental concerns are a major factor in mining’s future.

For now, the market and increasing costs of environmental compliance will continue to dictate whether mining activity at the Climax mine ramps up or not. But with the current administration’s energy plans, it will be fascinating to watch and an important mine  that is not likely to remain dormant forever.

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