My Turn: Pseudo-environmentalists put wrong spin on mines

Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2005

I recently received an e-mail from an Alaskan attending school in Colorado expressing concerns about the proposed Pebble Mine near Iliamna, Alaska. I was included in a mass mailing often used by those organizations that rely on most people accepting what they say without verification. They claim to be environmentalists, but true environmentalists use their education and experience to work with the mining industry to ensure our resources are developed in a sustainable manner that protects the environment, relying on science and facts, not baseless accusations and misinformation.

The author was preparing a talk about the consequences of gold mining in Summitville, Colo. (a hundred years ago) for an "information" meeting in Anchorage, and made a point of mentioning it was those darn Canadians and English again. I have also seen numerous letters in this newspaper that warn us of the pending doom that will be wrought by development of the Kensington Mine, reminding us of the legacy of environmental damage that mining has brought to unfortunate communities throughout the West.

I have lost count of how many times I have heard or read, "Coeur d'Alene Mines is responsible for the largest Superfund site in the United States." That's the spin; here are the facts: The Coeur d'Alene Basin is one of the largest areas of historic mining operations in the world, so it is also one of the largest and most complex abandoned hazardous waste sites in the nation, known as the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex Superfund Site. Every mining, milling, and smelting operation, large and small; every chemical facility; and even the railroads that operated there between the 1880s and early 1980s have been named as responsible parties. Coeur d'Alene Mines is only one of over 30 identified responsible parties, and it is not the principal one.

To compare modern mining in this country to what was being done nearly 100 years ago is, at best, disingenuous. It is true; mining has left a legacy of poor environmental stewardship, but legacy is defined in Webster as something handed down from the past. It was a time before this country enacted the many laws and regulations that protect the environment, human health, and workers; a time when there was no Environmental Protection Agency, Mine Safety and Health Administration, or Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In addition, today's mining companies employ environmental professionals dedicated to ensuring the mistakes of the past are not repeated. It is not just legal requirements anymore; it is sound, responsible business practice.

If contamination problems do occur, modern mines are required to have air, surface water, and groundwater monitoring in place to detect any releases, and corrective action is initiated to mitigate any potential threats as soon as possible. The pseudo-environmentalists will have you believe that Coeur has been reluctant to clean up groundwater contamination at their Rochester Mine in Nevada. I contacted personnel at the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Mining Regulation and Reclamation. I communicated directly with the individuals who actually oversee Coeur's corrective action at the site, and they have nothing but praise for Coeur's proactive response and willingness to work with them to design and implement corrective measures.

Throughout history, no single industry, business, or culture has had a monopoly on poor environmental stewardship. From the Bronze and Iron Ages of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, to the Ming Dynasty in China and the Inca, Mayan, and Aztec Cultures of our hemisphere, humans have exploited resources with little regard for the consequences. The only parameter controlling the degree of any culture's impact on the environment has been the level of its resource development technology. There were no exceptions, not even the pre-Columbian stone and flint quarries, gemstone mines, and gold mines in the Americas. Nowhere is there evidence that any of our ancestors ever gave any consideration to pollution control, surface erosion, or off-site migration.

But, that was then, and this is now. We have learned that uncontrolled development has long-term, adverse effects on our environment. We now have the technology, the regulations, and most importantly, the will to develop our resources responsibly. We can protect the environment and extract our mineral resources; they are not mutually exclusive.

• Douglas resident Chris DeWitt is a geologist who spent 10 years cleaning up hazardous waste sites on military installations before moving to Douglas.

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