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.
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.
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"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."