Enemy Mine

The debate over open-pit mining turns toxic.

In sheer quantity of toxic materials "released," CC&V exceeds Coors Brewing, CF&I Steel and four Public Service of Colorado power plants combined. But EPA officials stress that the TRI is only a starting point for communities to analyze their risk of exposure to various pollutants, and mining-industry advocates say it's absurd to lump their high-volume operations with other industries that produce smaller quantities of far more hazardous materials. The amount of toxics CC&V reportedly released off site is zero; almost all of its potential pollutants noted in the TRI consist of manganese compounds found in ore stored at the site.

"Over 99% of the material that we released' is naturally occurring material in the rock that's moved from pile A to pile B," Micsak notes. "The purpose of the TRI is sound, but when you just deal in raw numbers, it can be misleading."

Henderson defends ARM's use of the data: "The public should know that there's a huge volume of waste being produced and that there's a high risk associated with it."

Micsak contends that ARM is greatly exaggerating the risk. Since the collapse of Summitville, the state has toughened its mining regulations, and the CC&V operation reflects the heightened concern about possible leaks or excessive discharges. The company, the largest employer in Teller County, was required to post a $23 million bond with the state, engages in constant monitoring of water quality in the area, and boasts of a commitment to "redundant technology." "Our mine," says Micsak, "is a state-of-the-art operation running in perfect compliance with the law."

But some of the mine's neighbors don't feel all that neighborly about it. For years, residents of Victor have accused the mine of driving down tourism and bulldozing historic mining shacks in the path of the pit; some suspect the mine's blasting is shaking up their own homes ("It's the Pits," September 4, 1997). Critics say the mine has also exceeded its permit requirements on several fronts, including excessive discharge of cyanide into groundwater and higher-than-allowed zinc releases last year. CC&V officials take issue with many of the claims, which have been emphasized in formal objections to the mine's latest expansion request. If approved, the new amendment to its state permits would allow the mine to double the size of its heap-leach pad and waste-rock dump.

"I would agree that, currently, they have minor problems compared to some facilities," says Dan Randolph, the regional "circuit rider" for the Mineral Policy Center, an advocacy group that filed an objection to CC&V's expansion and supports the ARM proposal. "But they violated their permit last year in two places repeatedly. They are minor exceedances, but they're not excusable."

Micsak says his side will work hard to educate the public about the low risks and high benefits of the industry. He believes the ban will be defeated. The only reason the Montana proposal narrowly passed, he suggests, is because industry advocates were effectively gagged from campaigning on the issue until a court threw out the restriction, just a few days before the election. "This is really a fairly outrageous proposal," he says. "If this thing passes, our mine and hundreds of people in Teller County are going to suffer severely for something they didn't do. And there will be more than jobs lost. There will be environmental protection and technological advances lost, too."

Henderson says CC&V has at least another five years of production ahead on its existing site, even if the ban blocks its expansion plans. In any case, he adds, the true target of the initiative isn't the current mine -- "I think they try to do a good job, better than most," he says -- but the prospect of yet more open-pit mines with less responsible operators.

"We have long-term concerns," he says. "What happens in a hundred years to fifty or sixty stories of waste rock piled on top of a rubber mat? Based on what we've seen so far, the ability to predict how a mine like this will affect the environment seems limited, at best."

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