Big mines leave a big mess

  South Dakota has told a gold- and silver-mining company that it can't just walk away from its operation in the Black Hills, leaving the environmental damage behind. In May, the state obtained an emergency restraining order preventing the company, Brohm Mining, from abandoning treatment of collection ponds containing sulphuric acid and cyanide. Owners of the Gilt Edge Mine had said they could no longer afford to maintain their operation.

In asking the court for an injunction requiring Brohm to stay on-site until cleanup is complete, South Dakota officials said the mining company's $6 million cash bond for cleanup was some $4 million short of the money needed. They also said that if collection ponds were left untreated for even a few days, they could overflow and poison Bear Butte Creek and the Belle Fourche River.

Alan Bell, president of Brohm's parent company, Dakota Mining, says that Brohm doesn't want to abandon its property, but it does need more gold to pay its bills. The company proposed expanding its operation in the Black Hills National Forest in 1994, but a coalition of citizens' groups and the Sioux tribe, represented by the Western Mining Action Project, stalled the plan. "It's those delays," says Bell, "that have caused the financial jeopardy of the company."

"This is Summitville III, another taxpayer liability," says Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project, referring to the Summitville gold mine in Colorado, where in 1992 Galactic Resources left the federal government with a cleanup bill of $120 million. He also notes that in January, Pegasus Gold walked away from the Zortman-Landusky mine in Montana, leaving the state with an estimated $4 million mess.

"Companies underestimate the severity of acid mine drainage," says Flynn, "and they never think they'll be held accountable." - Jennifer Chergo