My Turn: Colorado gold mining disaster points to risks

Posted: Wednesday, November 02, 2005

In 1986, the Vancouver-based mining company, Galactic Resources, opened the Summitville gold mine in the Rocky Mountains near Del Norte in southern Colorado. Things seemed to be looking up for the economically struggling town, as the mine promised to bring in many new jobs. The high price of gold compared with the 1970s elicited optimistic expectations that the Summitville mine would be an economic success. Galactic's subsidiary, Summitville Consolidated Mining Corp., received all necessary permits and contributed $7.2 million for reclamation bonds to clean up the mine site after its operations were completed. It even dammed the valley where the mine's tailings were to be dumped to prevent overflow into a nearby creek. Everyone trusted that the mine operation would go smoothly.

Within six days of production, toxic water from the mine's tailings heap began leaking into the creek. An alternate tailings dump area, created to allay the risk of the dammed valley overflowing with toxic chemicals, also began leaking as much as 2,000 pounds of chemicals per day into other tributaries, killing all fish over a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River. Less than ten years later, after SCMCI lost $80 million, Galactic Resources went bankrupt. The Summitville mine is now on the EPA's National Priorities List of Superfund sites. The company's $28 million settlement pays for only a small portion of the cleanup costs, which may be as high as $235 million.

As Coeur Alaska begins development of Kensington gold mine, environmental disasters like the Summitville mine are history lessons that all Juneau residents should keep in mind. Coeur does not appear to be as irresponsible SCMCI, which was lax in its efforts to safeguard the environment. However, Coeur needs to do as much as possible to ensure that Kensington does not pose a threat to clean water like the Summitville mine did and still does. Large industrial operations like Kensington naturally pose substantial risks in ecological areas as fragile as Berners Bay. No matter how much is done to minimize the danger of mining chemicals entering Slate Creek or Berners Bay, there will always be peril.

For this reason, the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Dumping mine tailings into bodies of fresh water became illegal. If Coeur wants to come here and profit off of taxpayers' land, it must comply with that standard. This is not too much to ask. It is within Coeur's ability to operate a legal mine that will create jobs.

Twenty years ago, the people of Rio Grande County welcomed the economic opportunity the Summitville mine seemed to offer. But they did not go far enough by also demanding that the mining corporation adhere to strict environmental standards. Rather, the company dumped more of its mine waste at unauthorized dump sites and was allowed to continue filling the dammed valley with tailings despite the high risk of overflow. Now the community and U.S. taxpayers are paying heavily for their omission.

Summitville is a worst-case scenario that became reality. While the mining method may be different, Summitville and Kensington share some worrying similarities. The Kensington Mine also calls for damming an area to prevent spillage from entering a creek. Summitville was located near streams that drained into the Rio Grande River. Similarly, Slate Lake drains into Berners Bay. SCMCI offered what turned out to be a grossly inadequate amount of reclamation bonds. The Center for Science in Public Participation recently published a report indicating that there is a funding gap for Kensington reclamation bonds as well. More than 10 years after the Summitville mine was placed on the EPA's Superfund cleanup list the area still leaks toxic waste into the Alamosa River watershed, and now the EPA does not even have enough money to keep up with preventing the leakage. I wonder what Juneau residents will have to deal with 10 years after Kensington is tapped out, when Coeur has left and we are left with the cleanup.

The onus is on Coeur to reduce the risk of Kensington ending up in a similar situation as Summitville mine. They must come through on their promise of a legal mine that won't foul our clean water.

• Kupreanof resident Joe Sebastian is a commercial fisherman.



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