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Enemy Mine

The debate over open-pit mining turns toxic.

Having a gold mine next door can be a wonderful thing, bringing wealth and jobs to the community. Or it can be an environmental nightmare just waiting to happen, a stockpile of hazardous waste that could poison the water, kill wildlife and blight the landscape for generations to come.

It all depends on which "public information campaign" is beating on your noggin these days.

A proposal to ban open-pit mining operations in Colorado that use cyanide to extract gold or silver from tons of ore is still five months and thousands of petition signatures away from a spot on the November ballot, but the rhetoric surrounding the campaign is already heating up. In the past few weeks the proposal's backers have skirmished with the mining industry in court and seized on a recently released Environmental Protection Agency report to denounce the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company, the only active open-pit cyanide-extraction operation in the state, as "the state's top releaser of toxic pollution."

"Open-pit mining has an inexcusable record," declares Colin Henderson, president of the Alliance for Responsible Mining, the coalition pushing the campaign. "The overall pattern has been for foreign companies to come in and extract the wealth, and neighboring landowners are left with polluted water and damaged property."

CC&V officials say that the ARM initiative would put hundreds of their employees out of work and that the proponents are using "scare tactics," including a misleading interpretation of the EPA report, to make a safe, state-of-the-art operation seem like a major polluter. "There's a small band of people who are so opposed to mining that they will say anything and put any kind of spin they can on the situation," says Bob Micsak, chief environmental officer for Anglogold North America, the principal owner of CC&V. "They are playing on people's lack of technical understanding to deceive them about the risk."

Cyanide has been used to separate precious metals from ore for more than a century, but in the past two decades, emerging technology has produced huge open-pit mines on a scale never contemplated before. At CC&V's Cresson operation, which sprawls across hundreds of acres of private land outside the town of Victor, millions of tons of rock are moved each year -- much of it crushed, spread across a towering leach pad and sprayed with a cyanide solution to extract particles of gold. Depending on ore grades, it can take several tons of rock to obtain enough gold for a single wedding ring.

Environmental concerns about the process are numerous, including the threat of highly acidic runoff from mountainous heaps of waste rock, which can seep into groundwater and local streams. Despite the use of protective liners under the heap-leach facilities, cyanide and other toxic chemicals have traveled off site in several operations, killing rivers and contaminating drinking supplies; last January, a particularly nasty spill from a gold mine in Romania left a 250-mile trail of pollution stretching to the Danube.

Closer to home, Coloradans are still living with the consequences of the Summitville disaster eight years ago -- an underfunded, technologically flawed and poorly regulated gold mine that polluted the Alamosa River with heavy metals, resulting in a $160 million EPA cleanup that continues to this day. The owners of Battle Mountain, another defunct southern Colorado gold mine, have been fined repeatedly by the state for excessive cyanide levels and for allowing pollutants to seep into Rito Seco Creek, above the town of San Luis.

Local activists were emboldened to launch the ARM initiative by the success of a similar proposal in Montana, which became the first state to ban heap-leach mining in 1998. ARM president Henderson, a La Jara physician, says the alliance is "as grassroots as it gets," with a board of directors composed of citizens from Victor, San Luis and other communities heavily affected by mining. They face a long and expensive war of words with the Colorado Mining Association and other industry interests.

"This initiative is a vague, deceptive and unfair proposal," insists Anglogold's Micsak. "It's going to be a lawyers' feast for years to come."

Industry lawyers have already complained to the Colorado Supreme Court about the proposal's alleged vagueness; they also objected to the use of the word "cyanide," arguing that it conjured up alarming images of poison capsules and executions. But the court rebuffed the challenge, requiring only minor changes in wording to clarify that the proposal wouldn't shut down CC&V but would block future expansion. ARM began circulating petitions in earnest last week. The group will need 62,000 signatures by August to make the November ballot.

Henderson says ARM will have to raise a million dollars "to mount a credible campaign," and he expects the mining industry to spend three or four times that amount to fight the ban. The proponents found additional fuel for their cause, though, in the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), an annually compiled database that tracks chemical emissions by facility and industry. For the first time, the latest TRI includes mining in its calculations, and the Cripple Creek & Victor mine appears as the biggest single "releaser of toxics" in the state -- 7.5 million pounds of toxics in 1998 alone -- a fact ARM has touted in a recent press release.

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