Mining problems are not so old

Letter to the editor

Posted: Monday, May 30, 2005

Chris DeWitt, in his May 24 My Turn, "Pseudo-environmentalists put wrong spin on mines," supports the Kensington mine by drawing a stark distinction between historical and "modern" mining. For those concerned about the future of Berners Bay, it may be useful to take a closer look at DeWitt's sense of "history."

DeWitt points out that Summitville, Colo., was mined 100 years ago, but he doesn't mention more recent history. In 1992, not 1892, the Summitville mine was abruptly abandoned, and the U.S. EPA was called in to keep millions of gallons of cyanide-contaminated wastes from rushing down the rural valley. It was a "modern" cyanide heap leach operation, circa 1986, not century-old mine workings, that made Summitville a poster child for corporate irresponsibility.

In Idaho, the Grouse Creek mill waste impoundment was praised as "state-of-the-art" when it was built in 1993. Ten years later federal regulators declared the "modern" mine an "imminent and substantial endangerment."

In South Carolina, another "modern" mine was opened in 1987. By 1990, however, mining wastewaters had killed fish along a 49-mile stretch of river. In 1999, South Carolina regulators using "modern" regulatory authorities issued orders for cleanup. The company walked away and Brewer Gold Mine has become one of the nation's newest Superfund sites.

The Zortman Landusky mines operated under "modern" permits issued by the state of Montana in 1979 and by the Bureau of Land Management in 1981. The companies involved declared bankruptcy in 1998, and regulators found that the bonds posted for reclamation didn't begin to cover the true costs of managing this mining mess. Last month, Montana's Governor signed legislation to fund the expected "perpetual treatment" of water contamination that will be required.

So the question becomes, what is old and what is new?

Some of mining's problems are, in fact, vestiges of old operations, but the sad truth is that mining's legacy of pollution is still growing. And, unfortunately, the proposal to fill Lower Slate Lake with millions of tons of tailings rather than manage wastes in a dry, on-land facility makes Kensington look more like mining's bad old days than an enlightened future.

Velma Smith

Washington, D.C.



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