By Christina Callicott
January 28, 2008
SUMMIT COUNTY – On Wednesday, Jan. 16, Colorado legislators introduced a bill that would affirm local governments’ ability to protect water quality and safeguard the health and safety of their citizens from hazardous mining practices. House Bill 1165, co-sponsored by Rep. Randy Fischer (D-Fort Collins), Rep. John Kefalas (D-Fort Collins) and Sen. Brandon Shaffer (D-Longmont), could have sweeping ramifications throughout Colorado and as close to home as Rico, Ouray, and the West End, where mines are reopening, often to the consternation of local officials and citizenry.
As proposed, HB 1165 would clarify the legislature’s intent that the state government should not undermine city and county land-use authority. The bill also makes changes to Colorado mining law to ensure public participation in the mine-site approval process. The bill comes in response to an ongoing lawsuit between Summit County and the Colorado Mining Association over Summit County’s right to ban the dangerous process of cyanide heap-leach gold mining in the county. That decision is now in the hands of Colorado’s Supreme Court, who will decide whether local governments have authority to regulate mining operations. Proponents of the bill fear that should the Court rule in favor of the CMA, local protections from mining pollution could be invalidated, including regulations that protect water supplies from the use of toxic and acidic chemicals at open-pit cyanide mines.
According to Dr. Colin Henderson, president of the Alliance for Responsible Mining, the proposed bill does three things. It says that the statute of the Mined Land Reclamation Board, which governs mining throughout Colorado, shall not override local governing authorities with respect to permitting mines.
“Everybody agrees that the state has sole authority over mine reclamation, which is a very technical field of expertise,” said Jeff Parsons, lawyer for the Western Mining Action Project and a representative of the Alliance for Responsible Mining in the Summit County case. However, Parsons said they believe that local officials should have the right “to judge the risk level they want to take” in permitting new mining.
The bill also changes the makeup of the MLRB from seven members to nine, adding a representative from local governments and one from the state Public Health Department. Currently, boardmembers represent the mining industry, environmental interests, and agriculture; one seat is reserved for the Department of Natural Resources and another for the Soil Conservation Board.
Third, the bill would ensure that neighboring landowners are notified of exploratory mining procedures such as drilling, while the proprietary information obtained through exploratory processes would remain confidential.
“We want to lift the so-called ‘veil of secrecy’ over mining exploration,” Parsons said. “Colorado is the only state in the West that offers complete confidentiality to exploratory mining procedures. Right now, if people see drilling trucks going up and down their roads, and they call the state to find out what’s going on, the state won’t tell them.”
With the price of gold at record high levels of over $900 per ounce, former Summit County Commissioner and Colorado state representative Gary Lindstrom feels that there are pressing issues associated with a renewal of Colorado’s mining industry.
“We can't sit by and hope the courts get it right,” Lindstrom said. “The risks are real, and we need the ability to put in place local protections.”
Joe Mestas, Conejos, Colo. County Commissioner, supports the bill as well. “Because toxic mining practices can cause irreparable harm, local governments need the ability to protect their communities,” Mestas said. “What we’re hoping is that the bill will allow local land use agencies the authority to be able to set up rules and regulations regarding chemicals, equipment, and infrastructure. The bill will cover mining as well as drilling—any type of extraction. Our basic concern is taking care of our environment, our resources, and our people.”
Mestas is familiar with the effects of unsafe mining practices gone awry. Conejos County, situated in the eastern San Juan Mountains and San Luis Valley, is the site of the infamous Summitville disaster, where cyanide-contaminated water escaped from an open-pit cyanide leaching operation multiple times in the late 1980s and early 1990s, killing at least 17 miles of the Alamosa River, damaging the watershed and contaminating the aquifer.
Summitville has been called the Exxon Valdez of mining and the worst environmental catastrophe of modern Colorado history. According to the New York Times, the company declared bankruptcy, “and its major officers fled the country,” leaving taxpayers with a cleanup bill that approached $150 million in 2001 and that later reports estimated at $210 million and counting.
“The Alamosa probably won’t see any fish for the next 40 years,” Mestas said. Mestas thinks that local control can help avert such problems from happening.
“We know our area, we know what’s going on up there, we know where the rivers flow and what’s happening to them,” he said.
Stuart Sanderson, President of the Colorado Mining Association, feels that giving local governments control over mining would make the permitting process “a matter of political whim,” he said. “This is a pretext for banning mining outright. I think that this is an effort to make an end run around the judicial process,” he said, referring to CMA’s lawsuit against Summit County.
CMA is especially critical of a provision that they feel would bypass the State regulatory authority to give local governments veto power over operations and technologies. “We believe that decisions on matters of statewide interest such as development of minerals should remain in the hands of technical experts with solid expertise and funding, rather than scattered throughout the various levels of local government,” Sanderson said.
Boasting 120 corporate members and 700 individual members, CMA serves as the primary trade group representing Colorado’s mining industry.
Walt Rule, Ouray resident and member of the Alliance for Responsible Mining, denies that the bill is an attempt to ban mining outright.
“Mining can be a pretty important economic component, but it’s important to have local control over unsafe practices. If local governments can’t control what’s happening in their jurisdictions, then public health and safety are really at risk. This bill doesn’t mean that we would prohibit mining.”
Rule served as District Ranger for the Ouray District of the GMUG National Forest from 1968 to 1977 and has seen the impacts of mining both in the San Juans as well as in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where he also worked.
“What this bill does is give mining operations a review by local officials. The major concern with this bill, whether you’re looking at uranium mining or cyanide heap-leach mining, is public health and water quality.”
According to Dr. Henderson, the Alliance for Responsible Mining is made up of people “who’ve lived downstream from open pit cyanide mining; we’re working to protect the rest of Colorado from the experience we’ve had,” he said. “For us, the heart of it is local control. Without local control, there’s no other way to stop it. All other decisions are made by the MLRB, and they don’t refuse mines; they don’t say ‘no.’”