July 6, 2013 Updated: July 8, 2013 at 6:55 am
Four years after massive rock slides shut down the Pikeview Quarry above Oak Valley Ranch and Peregrine, the century-old mine visible for miles on the northwest edge of Colorado Springs has been declared safe and has reopened.
Since May, dynamite has been blasting every week or so and trucks piled high with limestone again are rumbling past hundreds of homes and apartments often running from early morning until evening.
The vibration from the loaded trucks, coupled with the loud braking, prompted calls from neighbors who had grown accustomed to the silence.
"They can shake the house," said Loree Ellis, who backs up to Allegheny Drive about a half mile east of Pikeview. "It's really bad when they jake-brake."
Ellis was referring to a loud diesel engine braking system used to slow big rigs. Many cities ban "jake-braking" in neighborhoods.
After a couple other complaints from folks, I visited the mine and met with M.L. "Mac" Shafer, vice president of Transit Mix Aggregates, which owns Castle Concrete and the Pikeview Quarry.
I hadn't been to Pikeview since September 2009 to see the damage caused by two huge rockslides. The first, on Dec. 2, 2008, brought 2 million tons of limestone crashing down the steep, stair-stepped ledges in the center of the quarry, generating a dramatic plume of dust and lots of calls to police from worried Springs residents.
On Sept. 9, 2009, a second slide produced another, smaller plume and dropped an estimated 1 million tons of limestone down the walls of the quarry.
The next few years were spent monitoring the quarry, which has a permit for 236 acres but actively mines less than half that area, with sophisticated laser sensors and seismographs and hiring geologists and engineers to analyze the mine.
A plan was developed to reopen, reclaim and close the mine by 2020.
Jerry Schnabel, president of Transit Mix, described it as a "four-phase plan for shrinking the scar, top to bottom and north to south."
A public hearing process last year led to the recent reopening and resumption of mining.
"Ultimately, it's a reclamation process," Shafer said. "But we've got to mine and get to the point where it can be reclaimed."
The mountainside is granite covered by limestone, Shafer said. Experts believe the rockslides were the result of moisture building up between the granite and the limestone.
"It will never be stable until we remove all the limestone," he said.
Even before it began mining again, the mine was busy taking in concrete rubble from the 347 homes destroyed by the Waldo Canyon fire in Mountain Shadows. And Shafer said his crews donated tons of sand for sandbagging give-aways in recent months as homeowners try to protect themselves from flash-flooding off the burn scar.
Shafer noted the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned to the edge of the quarry and stopped its advance into Oak Valley Ranch and Peregrine, will actually enhance efforts to make the mine blend with the surrounding Pike National Forest.
"We'll be doing mine reclamation at the same time the fire reclamation is going on in the forest," he said. "Now there won't be such a contrast."
But first the limestone must be removed. So crews are drilling and blasting, crushing and screening and, ultimately, trucking away limestone for use in concrete, asphalt and other building materials. Pikeview limestone, for example, is being heavily used in the widening of Austin Bluffs Parkway, in reconstruction of Mountain Shadows homes and assorted other projects.
Eventually, Shafer said the company plans to attack the dangerous slide zone, where boulders as big as 40,000 tons still are slowly rotating down the mountain.
"We'll take the rubble in the slide area," he said. "It's unstable so we'll have to do it remotely."
As his crews mine, Shafer said they'll also work on reclamation. And their efforts will be watched closely by Gary Bradley and David Isbell of the non-profit Colorado Mountain Reclamation Foundation, which oversaw reclamation of Castle's Queens Canyon Quarry above the Garden of the Gods. Quarry walls were sprayed with stain, dirt was hauled in and 7,000 trees planted at Queens from 1995 to 2001.
"It was a huge victory," Isbell said.
Similar efforts, led largely by another foundation member, Wanda Reaves, were well underway at Pikeview. Starting in 2003, thousands of Douglas fir and Rocky Mountain junipers had been planted high in the mine by volunteers using peat moss and a mixture of moisture-retaining polymer crystals in holes draped with black tarp and protected by mesh guards and sun screens.
However, much of the work was wiped out by the slides.
Isbell and Bradley promise to ensure Shafer and his crews stay true to the reclamation plan, approved by the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
"We are monitoring them," Bradley said. "And they are performing."
He said the operating plan for the mine shows an end date of 2020 for Pikeview. But Shafer believes it's probably too optimistic to think reclamation will be completed that soon.
"I'd say it may take anywhere from 10 to 11 years or more," he said.
That's not good news to neighbors like Ellis.
"I want to sell my house and I was hoping the quarry would stay shut down," she said, praising Shafer for restricting operating hours and trying to be a good neighbor.
"I feel bad about complaining," said Ellis, noting her father drove an 18-wheel truck.
But she knows the sight and sound of rock trucks rolling past her windows will make selling a bigger challenge.
"I feel a little guilty talking about it at all," she said. "I know that rock quarry saved my house."
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