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Fending off the gold diggers

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andreaa | Sep 09, 2008 10:15 AM

Today the Colorado Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on a case that could take away local government discretion on mining operations. The court must decide whether counties have the right to prohibit open-pit cyanide gold mining by adopting land-use regulations. (The Colorado Mining Association, an industry group, sued Summit County after it passed such regulations in 2004, the fifth Colorado county to do so. The state Court of Appeals decided in favor of the county, and the Mining Association is appealing that decision.)

Mining companies use a cyanide solution to extract gold from low-grade ore. Those who wish to ban the practice in their counties say it can result in serious environmental degradation, a la the Summitville disaster of the 1990s.

The Mining Association claims the state has sole authority over such decisions, and that regulating mining is not a land-use decision. But in a phone press conference on Monday, several county commissioners and local citizens groups begged to differ.

“Counties are just an extension of the state and if local authorities aren’t able to put conditions on approval for land-use concerns than it puts control in the hands of folks who aren’t from the area and don’t know local conditions,” Conejos County Commissioner John Sandoval said. Conejos lies downstream from the infamous Summitville site.

“These are not decisions made by people who want to do good for the community,” said Costilla County Commissioner Ed Vigil. “They want profits. It’s very important that local governments play a big part in granting opportunities for mining.”

Jeff Parsons, attorney with the nonprofit Western Action Mining Project, noted that the case could have larger ramifications. “Should the court rule in favor of the Colorado Mining Association, the effect would affect not only cyanide heap and vat leaching, but all types of mining,” he said. “An adverse decision could strip local government authority over all mining in the state.”

It's difficult to envision a compromise in this case, but it's happened before in similar situations. The court is not likely to reach a decision for several months, according to Parsons.

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