Lode Warriors

A Denver mining company is looking for copper. All it's found so far is a rich vein of environmentalists.

This past May, Tutchton, acting on behalf of Howe and one of her friends, filed an appeal of Kitchell's decision to issue Summo a mining permit with the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals in Arlington, Virginia. The board surprised many people by issuing a stay of the permit in June, saying Summo couldn't proceed until it had ruled on the case.

That action sent the parties into private negotiations to try to reach a settlement. While neither side will reveal the content of those discussions, both Summo and the BLM say they believe an agreement will be reached in the coming months. "I think we'll have a resolution soon that's acceptable to everyone," says Hahn.

Environmental questions are especially critical at Lisbon Valley because the mine would employ so-called "heap-leach" technology to extract copper from the earth. Under that process, miners dig huge pits, pile up the ore, then drip sulfuric acid onto the piles. The acid leaches out the copper, which is then removed from the liquid. The process allows miners to reclaim copper from ore that previously was not considered rich enough to mine.

But heap-leach technology has proven unpopular with some of the neighbors of proposed mines. Disasters like the 1992 spill of cyanide and acid into tributaries of the Rio Grande at the Summitville mine near Del Norte--the mine's Canadian owner declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter, sticking taxpayers with a cleanup bill that may soar to more than $100 million--have made many people skeptical of the heap-leach process, even in areas that have traditionally depended on mining. The large pits that are left behind when the mines close also rankle many critics. Tutchton, for example, predicts that exposed pits from Summo's proposed Utah mine could turn the Lisbon Valley into one big toxic lake.

"There will be large open pits that will not be filled," he says. "Rain and runoff will fill the pits, and there will be trace copper and cadmium and zinc that will leach into the pits. Over time the pits become more and more toxic."

According to Tutchton, the open-air pits could become a burial ground for thousands of birds. "In the desert, these are like magnets for birds," he says. "A bird flying from the Colorado River to the San Juans all of a sudden sees this big lake. There are examples from gold mines where a duck lands and can't even take off."

Kitchell responds that the BLM is requiring Summo to post a $6 million surface-water reclamation bond. That money will be spent to fill in the pits only if it's shown that the water gathering there is acidic, she says. And according to Kitchell, it's not clear if the pits in the arid Lisbon Valley will turn into lakes in the first place.

Even as they bicker over the many aspects of the Lisbon Valley mine, there's one thing that everyone involved in the Summo controversy can agree on: The issue goes far beyond one mine. Behind the controversy over individual mine proposals like Summo's looms the larger issue of whether mining should be regulated by a law written 125 years ago.

"This is not an attack on Summo or the BLM but on the mining law of 1872," says the BLM's Ford of the National Wildlife Foundation's campaign targeting Lisbon Valley. "The mining law has been cussed and discussed at every level."

That law gives extraordinary leeway to hard-rock miners. Intended to encourage the settlement of the West, the law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant gives miners access to most public lands and exempts them from paying royalties to the federal government. By contrast, oil companies and coal mines are required to pay substantial royalties for resources taken off public property.

Once miners have proven they've discovered valuable minerals, they're even allowed to buy public land outright. Through a process known as patenting, miners can buy the land for $2.50 to $5 an acre. About three million acres of public land--an area the size of Connecticut--have been sold to mining companies under this provision.

In contrast to hard-rock mining, the coal-mining industry is governed by legislation passed in the 1970s that levies an 8 percent royalty on coal taken from public lands. That law--passed as a result of public anger over strip mining--also requires coal mines to reclaim the land after excavation and creates a trust fund to pay for the cleanup of abandoned mine sites.

In 1993 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a reform bill that called for an 8 percent royalty on hard-rock minerals and used that money to establish a cleanup fund for abandoned mines. The law also abolished the sale of public lands to private mining companies and required new mines to follow strict environmental standards. However, the bill came under attack from Western senators allied with the mining industry, including Colorado's Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and the U.S. Senate refused to approve similar legislation.

The resulting impasse now colors everything having to do with mining. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt regularly denounces the mining law as a ripoff and holds acerbic press conferences where he cites the latest mining deal as one more example of the theft of public resources. In 1994 a Canadian company bought a Nevada mine with $10 billion in gold deposits for about $10,000, and Babbitt called it "the largest gold heist since the days of Butch Cassidy." He has signed other land-title transfers with an ornamental silver pen from the 1870s while sitting under a huge portrait of President Grant.

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