Lode Warriors

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

For now, hard-rock mining operates in a sort of regulatory twilight zone. The 1872 law is still in place, but miners also have to follow the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires agencies like the BLM to prepare environmental impact statements for every mine. Mining companies usually promise to reclaim mine sites, and since 1981 the BLM has required that companies issue bonds for surface reclamation.

However, one person's reclaimed mine site can be another's wasteland. While the strict laws governing coal mines require that the land be returned as close as possible to its original state, reclamation of hard-rock mines is a much more uncertain process. The BLM's current standard is simply that a mine can't "degrade the environment unnecessarily," an open-ended description that can be interpreted any number of ways.

Environmentalists have responded to the legislative stalemate by waging what amounts to guerrilla warfare against mines all over the West. Instead of targeting the mining industry in Congress, they're now fighting mining proposals at the grassroots level.

"Community by community, people have to make decisions on how to deal with a mine they don't want," says Aimee Boulanger of the Mineral Policy Center. Boulanger's group played a high-profile role in the effort to get Congress to reform federal mining laws. When that failed, the MPC decided to target its efforts on the local level. Today Boulanger tracks mines all over the Southwest from her base in Durango--her job title is "southwest circuit rider"--and she says those opposed to environmentally destructive mines have to fight them any way they can.

"As long as we have the 1872 mining law, we don't have a lot of tools to use to protect public resources," says Boulanger.

Summo's Hahn predicts that if copper mining becomes too difficult in the U.S., production will move to completely unregulated locales overseas. "If you're thinking globally, is it really the best policy to encourage mining in the Amazon rainforest?" he asks.

But environmentalists like Tutchton say they don't want to end copper mining. They just want the industry to follow environmental standards that have worked well in other fields, including coal mining. "We're not out to kill this mine," insists Tutchton. "We want to make it a safe mine and a reclaimed mine."

Howe, who has lived in Moab for just over a year, says she's been appalled by the attitude of longtime residents toward mining. "When we started the appeal, we got a lot of flak that we were putting 143 jobs on the line," she says. "People here have this romantic illusion about mining. There's so much mineral wealth in Utah, [the state] could easily be trashed. The people here don't seem to care."

While Howe would prefer there be no mining in the Lisbon Valley, she says she's willing to accept a copper mine with strong environmental safeguards in place. She believes the mining industry needs to recognize that the public's attitudes are changing. "It's a really selfish industry that's gotten its way for 125 years," she adds. "They need to become a responsible industry."

Despite his legal jousting with Howe and her attorney, Hahn also believes the mining industry needs to change. He says too many miners are out of touch with the West's changing population--for instance, Hahn points out that other mining companies might have fought the BLM in court for the right to mine in New Mexico, whether or not the local residents approved. "I think what the mining industry has to do is recognize a paradigm shift has occurred," says Hahn. "There is a new West out here, and we have to recognize that."

As for the Lisbon Valley, he says he still believes Summo and the project's opponents can strike a deal that will allow the company to break ground on its first mine. "We're going a long way to meet their needs," he says. "We're not out to do things on the quick and dirty. We're not out to create any environmental nightmares.

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