By K.C. Mason
The Telluride Watch
January 21, 2008
DENVER – A concerted effort to re-write both federal and state laws governing hard rock mining in Colorado is picking up steam at the state capitol in Denver.
Companion measures prompted by a fight over plans for an in-situ uranium mine in northeastern Colorado’s Weld County were introduced last week in the state Legislature to bump up regulation of the industry. “We’re on the verge of a new mining boom in Colorado, but it could leave behind a toxic legacy,” said Rep. Randy Fisher, D-Fort Collins, in the official roll-out of House Bills 1161 and 1165. “We need to encourage responsible mining practices and ensure that Colorado’s communities and our waters are protected.”
And a group of landowners, sportsmen and environmentalists, noting a “rush to mine” in Colorado, is putting the spotlight on this Thursday’s hearing on mining law reform before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources in Washington D.C. Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar is a member of the committee.
A news release from Environment Colorado and the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining said prices for gold, uranium and molybdenum are at record highs, driving new mine proposals throughout Colorado.
“Since 2003, new mineral claims on federal public lands in Colorado have increased a whopping 239 percent,” the news release stated. “Unless the 1872 Mining Law in modernized, we could see past mistakes repeated in Colorado.”
At the state level, HB 1161, with bi-partisan sponsorship, would require all in-situ leach mining of uranium to restore all affected surface and groundwater to its pre-mining quality. It also would require applicants for in-situ leaching mining permits to notify landowners within three miles of the affected land.
The bill would allow the state’s regulatory board to deny a permit if the applicant fails to demonstrate that the reclamation of both land and water will be accomplished.
Sen. Steve Johnson of Fort Collins is the only Republican sponsor of the bill. The Canadian-based Powertech Mining Corp. has proposed a uranium mine using the leaching process in his district. Opponents claim it could contaminate the groundwater for 30,000 water users in the area.
“Rural Colorado depends on clean water,” Johnson said. “We need to ensure uranium mining happens responsibly and doesn’t degrade groundwater quality for Colorado farmers and ranchers.”
Only Democrats are sponsoring the more-pervasive HB 1165, which would increase the regulatory authority of the state’s Reclamation, Mining and Safety Board over all hard rock mining in Colorado.
Similar to last year’s increased regulation on the oil and gas industry, HB 1165 would increase the size of the board to include the executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment and at least one member representing local governments.
Stuart Sanderson of the Colorado Mining Association said the industry also is gearing up to oppose both bills. He was particularly critical of a provision he said would give local governments veto power over mining operations and technologies.
“The (industry) has consistently supported strong state regulatory programs,” Sanderson said. “We believe that decisions on matters of statewide interests such as the 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 called the regulatory bill an attempt to circumvent a pending case before the Colorado Supreme Court dealing with Summit County’s ban on leach mining of gold.
“The bill is trying to overrule in advance any decision in our lawsuit challenging a Summit County land use resolution that tried to place a preemptive ban on chemical reagents in mining, a practice that is authorized and sanctioned in the state,” Sanderson said. “The bill is premature and an end run around the well established judicial process for hearing this case.”
Both bills were assigned to the House Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources, chaired by Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison. She said the bill dealing with water quality would be heard first, but the broader regulatory bill needs more work.
“My strategy will be to look at the water bill first and tighten up the language in that,” Curry said. “On the bigger questions of how do we structure the regulatory framework in general, I want to pull together some of the key players and thing about the long term.”
Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing, but Curry indicated it could be several weeks before HB1165 is heard before her panel.
“It’s pretty far reaching so have to make sure it’s done thoughtfully,” she said. “I want to know whether we’ve roped in the whole hard rock industry with this. So we just need to start having the right group of players around the table talking before I’m going to run that second bill.”
Curry said, however, that she agrees the regulation of hard rock mining needs a legislative review.
“Our focus has been more on the reclamation side and less on the process for the reclamation permit,” she said. “We have to look at this as an industry that is going to be with us for years. It’s statewide, it involves different types of technology, and I’m not going to be rushed into it until I feel like we’ve thought in through.”