Colorado targets huge gold mines

The New and Old West are joining forces to pass a ballot to ban open-pit cyanide mining.

Some of them are so big they can be seen from space - holes in the earth forged not with shovels and pickaxes, but with explosives and chemicals.

They are open-pit gold mines, hewed from earth and rock then sprayed with cyanide to dissolve and filter out the gold.

During the past two decades, they've spread across the West as the most cost-effective way to cull gold from stone. But the sheer enormity of these operations - and their history of sometimes catastrophic environmental mis-haps - has a group of Colorado citizens trying to ban them here.

Last week, the Alliance for Responsible Mining began gathering signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. Already, the effort has 72 percent public support, according to one poll.

What is perhaps most telling, though, is that ranchers and longtime Coloradans - not just conservation-minded newcomers - are giving the effort urgency. And by taking up the cause of conservation, they are blurring traditional battle lines in the West.

"This initiative is coming from traditional farmers and ranchers, who are sixth and seventh-generation residents," says Roger Flynn, director of the Western Mining Action Project in Boulder. "It is not an Old West-New West battle."

Clarence Martin is one of those native Coloradans who's backing the initiative. He's a retired rancher. He worked at the local Summitville gold mine back before World War II. And he makes it clear he's not an environmentalist. ("Some of those environmentalists are plumb radical.")

Protect the water

Still, the Sanford resident is fighting open-pit mining, worried that cyanide could flow into streams and rivers.

"It's necessary that we protect our water, because it's the most important thing we have."

His concerns are not unfounded. Nearly a decade ago, releases of cyanide from the Summitville mine killed aquatic life in 17 miles of the Alamosa River. Since then, taxpayers have spent $170 million to reclaim the mine, now a Superfund site, making it the costliest US mining disaster. The tab continues to grow.

Gold mines abroad have had similar problems. In February, a cyanide spill from a Romanian gold mine decimated a 250-mile stretch of the Danube.

It's events like these that have caused born-and-bred Westerners to turn against the tradition of gold mining to support a cyanide ban.

"When you look deeper, you see that there are places in the West that have suffered some serious wounds because of past irresponsible mining practices," says David Getches, a law professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "Now we have the natives of the state saying, 'It's become unacceptable for us, too.' "

The Colorado effort follows in the footsteps of a 1998 Montana initiative that banned the use of cyanide in gold mining. If approved, existing mines could continue operations, but not expand. It represents the first test of whether the Montana law can spread though the West.

Lawmakers from Arizona to Australia for years have talked

leftovers: Critics say open-pit mines, like the now-defunct Picacho Mine in California, leave a scar on the landscape across the West.

about banning "heap leach" mining - the process in which cyanide solution is sprayed over piles of ore, dissolving the gold like sugar in water. But Montana set a trend in motion.

"After Initiative 137 passed, we were hearing from people all over the world - from Turkey to the Philippines," says Jim Jensen, executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center in Helena. In fact, the Turkish government has since banned the use of cyanide in its gold mines.

The initiative, though, has also had its problems.

The mining industry insists that the process is safe - and it has challenged the Montana measure in court.

A question of safety

"Mining companies go to extraordinary lengths to handle and manage this material safely," says Paul Bateman, president of The Gold Institute in Washington. "The industry recognizes it has to be a good steward of the land, and a lot of care goes into this."

Moreover, others say, the real issue of safety has been overshadowed by the process's ominous name. "The word cyanide is a headline grabber," says Richard De Voto, president of Canyon Resources Corp., a mining company in Golden, Colo. "There's more cyanide put onto streets in the winter [in road salt] than is ever used at one of these mines."

The Montana initiative has withstood one legal challenge, but last week, Canyon Resources filed suit against the state of Montana, arguing that the law is unconstitutional. The company seeks damages of $500 million.

Industry officials say they'll sue if Colorado passes its ban, yet public opinion seems to have turned against the mines. "Every major open-pit cyanide leach mine has had problems, from small to catastrophic," says Mr. Flynn. "People have had enough."

That's why Mr. Martin, the retired rancher, wants to help pass the ban. "In my mind, it's right. And right will injure no man," he says. "I don't think it's right for people to pollute our streams with cyanide to get gold. You can't eat gold, and you can't drink it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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