Mining industry gets more than enough chances

  Dear HCN,

Though your recent issues covering the mining industry in the West were informative and interesting, I must call you to task for letting rabble-rouser Dave Skinner share the platform with credible witnesses. (HCN, 1/19/98) Why is it that "issues' publications like High Country News, in struggling so hard to be unbiased, repeatedly allow the "other" side to commit sins "enviros' could never get away with? I've yet to read anything by Skinner wherein he doesn't commit the defamation for which he so vehemently criticizes the other camp. He has a reputation around these parts for his emotional diatribes against anything having to do with reining in the extractive industries or slowing down "progress," claiming that his "native Westerner" status gives him special insights and a special love for the land (since when is rape defined as love?).

I'm just as "native' - fifth generation Western Coloradoan - and I find his lack of facts and his emotionalism appalling. Many of us are willing to give mining a second chance; it's the third and fourth chances that get us pissed. How many mistakes must we allow before we say enough? We're not talking about simple forgiveness here; we're talking about the future of watersheds and ecosystems and, ultimately, our own health.

Let's talk about one of these mistakes - the all-too-familiar Summitville Mine. Skinner writes that Colorado would never let another disaster like that happen again. After all, the state is now in the throes of a Supreme Court lawsuit by the landowners at Summitville that maintains the state failed to adequately regulate the site and presents numerous examples of how the Division of Minerals and Geology and the Water Quality Control Division knew of the pad leaks and ongoing contamination, but continued to negotiate and issue permits to Galactic. State inspectors knew of the breaks in the pad liner when they happened only two weeks into the project. What's the state's defense? That it's immune because of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act.

As for its "mistakes," Summitville Consolidated pleaded guilty to 40 counts of violating the Clean Water Act and agreed to pay fines of $20 million, which will be hard to collect, since the company declared bankruptcy. The company and two of its managers (not including the CEO, Robert Friedland) were also indicted for criminal violations that included lying to federal regulators. Friedland is now a citizen of Hong Kong, his base for new "global enterprises." Friedland has a reputation for raising venture capital, staying involved long enough for his stocks to soar and then selling out. Other ventures have included Minas Guariche, a strip-mine in Venezuela which has been accused of using unsalaried natives in illegal mining operations and polluting the headwaters of the Amazon. Friedland's past includes the penny stockmarket and an arrest for selling 8,000 tabs of LSD. Toxic Bob is not the kind of guy I want to give a second chance.

Skinner should ask the farmers in the San Luis Valley below Summitville how they feel about second chances. Only four years after Galactic re-opened Summitville, their metal irrigation structures began to seriously corrode. Terrace Reservoir, 17 miles downstream from the mine, and a popular fishing area, no longer held any fish or aquatic life, nor did the entire Alamosa River leading into and out of the reservoir. A number of studies on the effects of Summitville contamination in the San Luis Valley are in progress (remember, this is a relatively poor area almost entirely dependent on agriculture). When asked about one such study, which deals with toxic metals in sheep, a state health official told me simply, "The study is still ongoing, and the sheep aren't dead yet." The fish aren't back yet, either.

The state is now trying to downgrade the water quality of the Alamosa River, thereby reducing the standards required for remediation. The Superfund TAG group has hired technical consultants who question the modeling the state is using for the watershed. One of the ironies of the state's wish to downgrade the river quality is that previously such attempts at reclassification were done by industries trying to avoid responsibility for their pollution.

Has the state of Colorado learned from the Summitville mistake? Is it now willing to listen to the citizens who ultimately own the land it manages?

Ask some of the people of the Alamosa River watershed in towns such as Capulin and La Jara who are preparing to do battle again. A few miles below Summitville is the abandoned Miser Mine, across the river from the old town of Jasper, which now hosts summer cabins. A California company called Earth Resources has requested exploratory permits, and so far they haven't proven themselves to be good corporate neighbors. The company has been charged by the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board with prospecting without a permit. Company president Lynn Shugarman has repeatedly broken through a locked gate put up by the residents of Jasper to prevent access to the site, to which he contends he has historical right-of-way. The residents say he's trespassing. Shugarman's suing. One citizen told me that shotguns might be the next stage. These are people who have historically been pro-mining, Dave.

But the state is going to issue the permits anyway. Apparently responsibility is not a factor here. The regulators just pass the buck. Sources at the state level told me they believe the company is obtaining the permit in order to speculate on the mine, as if that makes it OK to permit it. But ultimately, the Alamosa River watershed will have another cyanide heap-leach mine. Yet another similar mine is also planned on Red Mountain Pass, across the divide from Summitville.

Thanks to the 1872 Mining Law, mining companies can buy mineral rights for a mere pittance, make millions of dollars, then walk away. The real truth here is that it doesn't cost a lot for mining industries to be responsible, but the mining industry has a powerful lobby. How many Summitvilles do we need before the law is changed?

How many second chances should we give these people? How much doubletalk can Dave Skinner dish out on behalf of People for the West? By the way, who funds People for the West and the salaries of its writers?

Chinle Miller

Montrose, Colorado

The writer is a part-time archaeologist.