Summitville: an expensive lesson


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In mine reclamation, lessons are learned through failure. Nowhere has the failure been more spectacular than at the Summitville Gold Mine in southern Colorado.

The mine is being reclaimed now, but at a huge cost, borne almost entirely by people and companies that had nothing to do with the mine.

"This is the biggest mine reclamation paid for by Superfund," says Jim Hanley, the Environmental Protection Agency's project manager for the Summitville cleanup.

A Canadian company, Galactic Resources Ltd., ran the Summitville mine from the mid-1980s until 1992, when the company went bankrupt, leaving a cyanide heap-leach pond and other facilities that leaked pollution into the Alamosa River. The pollution killed fish and endangered farms that used the water for irrigation.

Galactic had posted a bond to help cover the cost of reclamation, but it didn't amount to much. Around the West, the bonding requirement varies from state to state. Colorado's Division of Minerals and Geology had required Galactic to post only $4.5 million. Worse, only $2.3 million was cash; the rest was in liens on the company's equipment.

So far, the cleanup has cost $120 million, with the total estimated to reach $150 million, not including lawyers' bills. Almost all the money has come from the Superfund, which is endowed mainly by fees on the oil and chemical industries.

At the mine, two adits that were draining have been plugged, waste piles have been capped, the pit has been backfilled, the tailings dam was enlarged, water treatment plants have been modernized and a new plant built - and still the site leaks some pollution. The cleanup continues.

Criminal charges have been pressed against two of the company's former executives, alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

Meanwhile, the high-flying businessman who put the Summitville mine deal together and ran it for six years, Robert Friedland, denies responsibility and hasn't been charged. The criminal investigation continues, and EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice are pressing a civil court action against Friedland. Denver's Rocky Mountain News has dubbed Friedland the "King of Denial."

Friedland is famous for high-risk mining ventures, and continues to establish new mines in Canada, Africa and South America, some of which are reportedly earning him hundreds of millions of dollars.

"We'd like to get at least something from him" to help pay for the Summitville cleanup, says the EPA's Eleanor Dwight.

Learning the hard way, Colorado, whose agencies are also involved in the Summitville cleanup, has toughened its monitoring and bonding. The bond on a newer heap-leach mine near Cripple Creek has been set at a minimum of $40 million - all "real money," not liens - which, Hanley says, is "more realistic."