Legacy of Hard Rock Mining in the West -- Death of a River, a Community's Response

A century and a half of hard-rock mining with no accountability, without consideration for environmental consequences or downstream neighbors has taken a heavy toll in the West. Metallic, acidic wastewater from mines have a long-term effect on agriculture, ranching, aquatic life, human and wild life, and aquifers.

A 3 million gallon dump of mustard-colored toxic waste from Gold King Mine into the Animas River on August 5 raised the most recent alarm, even as the EPA estimates that the overall discharges from local abandoned mines amount to one Gold King mine disaster every two days. Colorado officials estimate that drainage from 230 abandoned mines in the state result in the failure of 1,645 miles of 105,000 miles (1.6%) of rivers and streams to meet Clean Water Act standards.

Cited as the worst environmental disaster in Colorado history, the Summitville open-pit cyanide heap-leach gold mine sits at an altitude of 11,500 feet in the San Juan Mountains, southeast of the Gold King Mine and 40 miles west of the city of Alamosa, just east of the continental divide. The devastating fallout of this form of mining led one resident to lament that the San Juan Valley had become "the poster child for how not to do mining."

Because underground gold mines were depleted, the U.S Bureau of Mines by 1969 proposed open-pit cyanide heap-leach gold mining, with the promise of extracting small quantities of gold from large quantities of low-grade ore, ostensibly to make gold mining profitable once more, to boost the economy and create jobs. The anticipated "profitability" of open-pit cyanide heap-leach gold mining failed to factor in the profound consequences of this technique of mining to all life forms and the environment.

Unanticipated were the huge quantities of waste, and the almost immediate release of potentially dangerous toxins into the environment, with profound effects on human and animal life. A teaspoon of 2% cyanide can kill a person, and high cyanide concentrations are toxic to soil microorganisms.

From 1986 to 1992 Summitville Consolidated Mining Corporation (SCMCI), a subsidiary of Canadian Galactic Resources Mining Company, ran the company, promising a 'zero discharge, state of the art' facility. Millions of tons of rock were crushed to gravel, "heaped 200 feet high on a 40-acre synthetic liner," and soaked with sodium cyanide solution to dissolve and leach out microscopic gold particles into a drain at the base of the pile, from which gold was chemically extracted.

Summitville compromised the Alamosa watershed that watered thousands of cattle and sheep and irrigated 45,000 acres of crop lands. Ranchers and farmers routinely replace headgates and sprinkler systems corroded by acidic, highly mineralized water.

By 1990 there was reported a complete kill-off of aquatic life along a 17-mile stretch of the upper Alamosa River watershed, the cumulative effect of years of acidic, heavy metal toxic runoff from Summitville Mine. By 1991, 85,000 gallons of cyanide-laced water had leaked through the damaged leach pad liners, unleashing toxic, acidic, metallic water into the underground aquifer and the downstream watershed.

On a fishing outing with his grandson in 1993, retired San Luis Valley rancher Ignacio Rodriquez reported the shock of the scene of destruction they encountered along the Alamosa River. 'The rocks were red and the river had some greenish tinge to it,'' he reported. ''The fish were all belly up. Rainbow trout and German browns -- all dead. It was sickening.'' Previously, the fish had always come back, he said. "But this time the wipeout was total. The toxics killed fish, frogs, insects--every living thing in the river." Family outings tubing and camping on the river near the mine became a distant memory.

The U.S. Geological Survey had declared, "The Summitville mine drainage waters are among the most acidic and metal-rich in Colorado....Leakage of groundwaters from a highly-fractured, mined mountain like Summitville is difficult, if not impossible to prevent, and long-term leakage of acid groundwaters from natural discharge points is unavoidable."

In hindsight, mining in this terrain was judged a recipe for disaster. Severe winter snowfalls - up to 30 feet in a season accumulating on steep slopes of the San Juan Mountains regularly precipitate avalanches and landslides. Heavy spring snowmelts continuously leach massive metallic acid drainage from the Summitville Mine, overwhelming the site's water treatment plant.

Many said the Summitville permit should never have been issued, even as it was poorly monitored by state regulators. In a recession, the Colorado legislature had cut back enforcement and regulation of mining operations.

Because the lobby representing the metal mining industry successfully excluded themselves from oversight and created loopholes in the Clean Water Act, the industry has reportedly been free to dump and release toxics into waterways without accountability. Nor are mining operators required to account for hundreds of cyanide compounds that form when cyanide reacts with other elements that accumulate in plant and fish tissues and persist in the environment for long periods.

The Alamosa River has variously been described as moribund or permanently dead. Estimates have ranged from decades to a century before the river will return to a semblance of its natural state.

As often occurs with mines gone bad, abandonment of the Summitville Mine left taxpayers footing the bill for cleanup after the mining company repeatedly failed to contain cyanide leaks, control acidic rock discharges and properly treat effluent wastes. In 1990 after several anonymous phone calls to the Environmental Protection Agency triggered inspection of the Summitville mine area, primary mine owner, Canadian investor Robert Friedland - nicknamed "Toxic Bob" - quickly sold all of his shares of the mine, resigned from the company and fled the country. With toxic waste water threatening another heavy spill into the San Luis Valley, on December 15, 1992 Summitville mine operators from Galactic Resources declared bankruptcy and shut down operations. Its officers fled. It is a scenario repeated in mine after mine in the West. The next day an EPA Emergency Response team stepped in to aid the state in cleanup of the abandoned mine.

EPA officials identified 6 leaking mine sites. Approximately 1,000-2,000 pounds of dissolved heavy metals left the site daily. In 1994 Summitville was placed on the EPA National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites, requiring perpetual cleanup to keep toxins at bay. One EPA estimate predicted the need for 100 years of treatment to restore the river to its natural state.

Friedland was eventually forced to pay $20 million toward reclamation costs, though taxpayers have paid at least 10 times that amount - reportedly costing federal and state governments $235 million by 2005, not counting the cost of required perpetual water treatment at the site.

By 2000 when officials declared the heap-leach pad capped and "99 percent neutralized," there remained about a ton and a half of cyanide suspended in 93 million gallons of water. Declared Ignacio Rodriguez, "We'll see leakage - not if, but when." His anguish was palpable: "They got the gold, and we got the shaft." When the U.S. Forest Service put up signs in the area warning not to drink the water, neighbors mobilized to protect the river.

No one living by the Alamosa River has ever been compensated for individual losses. The state heaped insult upon injury by attempting to lower water-quality standards on the Alamosa River - a move that would reduce industry accountability, making it easier for new mining companies to move in along the river. Local residents have fought like hell to force protection of the river's return to its original state.

Mobilization by San Luis Valley Residents

Family physician and sheep rancher Dr. Colin Henderson lives in the San Luis Valley, downstream and within sight of the 500-acre toxic scarred landscape created by the Summitville Mine on South Mountain. In response to repeated release of contaminants by open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mining, Henderson with his neighbors, including retired hard rock miners, ranchers, farmers and a schoolteacher, organized the grassroots nonprofit group, Alliance for Responsible Mining, for which he served as president.

Henderson has said ARM was backed by 40 organizations, its primary goal the passage of a statewide ban on any new open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mining, while halting expansion of the only other operating open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mine in the state - the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company in Teller County. The group's proposed ballot initiative was challenged in court by the Colorado Mining Association and the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company, and never made it to the state ballot.

Two draft laws promoted by ARM in 2002 and 2003 never got a full hearing in the state legislature. Henderson has related that at one point the bill was assigned to an unrelated committee, the Senate State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, where bills are commonly assigned to die.

Current state law, observes Dr. Henderson, ties the hands of local efforts to protect communities and water sources. The Summitville fiasco raises grave questions about short-term gains sought by private enterprise at the expense of long-term losses for communities and the environment.

Local Bans on Cyanide Gold Mining

In 2004 Summit County became the fifth county in Colorado to ban the use of toxic acidic chemicals like cyanide in vat or heap leach operations. People of Summit County judged the risk of spills too great against the value of clean water and healthy fish to a recreation-based economy - considerations far outweighing any potential profits from recovered remnant gold.

The Colorado Mining Association subsequently challenged the Summit County ban. Following a ruling in favor of local communities by the Colorado Court of Appeals, the Colorado Supreme Court in 2009 reversed the lower court decision and struck down the Summit County ban of cyanide vat or heap leach mining, instead upholding state preemption of local laws. The lone dissenting Court opinion argued that Summit County could use its land-use authority to determine "appropriate use of land" in the county. The state Supreme Court ruling effectively overturned local cyanide mining bans in four other Colorado counties - Gunnison, Gilpin, Conejos and Costilla.

Dr. Henderson has reported that at least 14 Colorado counties were poised to enact bans on open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mining, but all such efforts were brought to a halt after the Colorado Supreme Court sided with the mining industry. Ten years of hard work by the citizens group Alliance for Responsible Mining to protect the environment against future Summitville Mine disasters hit a brick wall.

Redress of Corporate Degradation of the Commons & Reinforcement of Local Rights to Democratic Self-Governance

Many communities have concluded that the root of the problem of lack of community self-governance is a basic lack of democracy. Disregarded are the democratic rights of people as stated in Article II Section 1 of the Colorado Constitution: "All political power is vested in and derives from the people; all government, of right, originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole."

Advocates of a proposed 2016 initiative for the Colorado Community Rights Amendment to the Colorado Constitution promote it as a reinforcement of democracy and an antidote to the concentration of wealth and corporate power amassed by the 1 percent. The Colorado Community Rights Amendment would reinforce in the state Constitution the fundamental right of each community to self-government, to promote sustainability of nature and the environment, to preserve their health, safety and welfare, and to prohibit activities that threaten or violate the same. It would prohibit corporate degradation of the Commons at the expense of the people.

Raw unencumbered capitalism devalues human beings. - David Simon's description of the background of his award-winning series The Wire.