LA JARA, Colo. - When Dr. Colin Henderson looks up at southern Colorado's San Juan Mountains, the family physician sees a septic, 500-acre wound in the alpine landscape of South Mountain.
In spite of seven years and more than $150 million of government-financed reclamation, the Summitville Mine, at 11,500 feet, still seeps toxins into the Alamosa River watershed, a tributary of the Rio Grande (HCN, 1/19/98: Summitville: an expensive lesson). Farmers and ranchers, who depend on the tiny river to water thousands of cattle and sheep and irrigate 45,000 acres of croplands, routinely replace corroded headgates and worry about unknown, long-term effects from the pollution.
Officials admit that there's no end in sight to the acid mine drainage from the Superfund site, which is why Henderson and other Colorado residents have formed the nonprofit Alliance for Responsible Mining.
The grassroots alliance wants to ban cyanide in any new open-pit gold mines in Colorado, and to stop the expansion of the only currently operating gold mine in the state, the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co. It needs 62,438 petition signatures before Aug. 7 to place an initiative on the ballot. If voters pass the initiative in November, the state Constitution will be amended and Colorado will join Montana as the second state to ban the practice.
"We have already suffered greatly from this type of mining, and it's time to make a conscious choice to protect our water and protect ourselves from the huge taxpayer liability these mines cause," says Henderson. "As a doctor, I know cyanide is deadly. Prevention ahead of time is the only cure."
A river of vinegar
The Summitville Mine operated as an open-pit, heap-leach gold mine from 1986 until 1992, when the Summitville Consolidated Mining Corp., Inc., declared bankruptcy and abandoned the mine to the state and federal governments.
The Canadian-based company had blasted away a third of the mountain, exposing hundreds of acres of once tundra-covered rock. Millions of tons of rock were crushed to gravel, "heaped" 200 feet high on a 40-acre synthetic liner, and soaked with cyanide to "leach" microscopic gold particles and other minerals into a drain.
Summitville attracted worldwide attention in 1990, when all aquatic life for 17 miles in the Alamosa River died. Officials won't blame the fish kill on cyanide, but everyone agrees that polluted water spilled into the river. Since then, heavy metals, including copper, zinc and iron, continue to flood the watershed each spring when snow at the alpine site melts and overwhelms the site's water-treatment plant.
At times, the river is as acidic as vinegar. Yet it now shows small signs of aquatic life. State and EPA officials say problems still exist at Summitville, but the reclamation is showing results, says Austin Buckingham, one of the state health department's site managers.
The Terrace Reservoir on the Alamosa River holds 13,000 acre-feet of water that is so full of heavy metals it shimmers turquoise. But concentrations have dramatically decreased, says Buckingham.
"It's true the Alamosa River and Terrace Reservoir have been devastated," she told the audience at a recent public meeting in La Jara, "but reclamation has improved the (water's) pH and I stand by my ... studies that showed a negligible impact to your crops."
There's still a long way to go. Although the heap-leach pad is capped and "99 percent neutralized," Buckingham says, it still contains about a ton and a half of cyanide suspended in 93 million gallons of water.
"That scares the hell out of me," said Ignacio Rodriguez, a member of the Alliance for Responsible Mining. "That could be released downstream at any time. The integrity of the liner is dubious. We'll see leakage - not if, but when."
"They got the gold and we got the shaft," says Rodriguez, a retiree who lives along the river and yearns for the day he can once again catch fish with his grandchildren.
Slow but sure
Since the taxpayer-funded clean-up began in 1993, millions of tons of rock have been trucked back up the mountain and dumped into the giant open pit, sealing it off (HCN, 1/25/93: Colorado mining industry strikes again). Drain tunnels dug by turn-of-the-century miners have been plugged, reducing another source of pollution. The plugs, however, backed up millions of gallons of acidic water inside the mountain, and the pressure is now causing seeps to appear around the area.
This summer, Delhur Industries, the clean-up contractor, will quarry 200,000 tons of limestone near Walsenburg, Colo., truck it to the site and use it to line miles of drainage ditches to buffer acid released from groundwater runoff. They will also spread crushed limestone from a quarry near Salida on hundreds of acres of exposed rock to neutralize acids released when the rock gets wet. Many tons of compost will also be trucked in for grass and sedge seeding.
Angus Campbell, reclamation coordinator for the state health department, said last month that the last phase of the reclamation is about a third completed. Eighty acres were seeded last year, he said, and Delhur workers, who returned to the snow-covered site on April 17, will seed another 140 acres this summer.
"We've seen some major improvements in the last seven years," says the state health department's Buckingham. "It can be relatively easy to contaminate the environment and unfortunately it can take a very long time to remediate and restore the environment. Our goal is to restore fish and the aquatic habitat to the Alamosa River."
More to come?
As state and federal officials struggle to clean up the Summitville mess, the Colorado Mining Association is defending its ability to open and expand cyanide heap-leach mines in the state. The association and the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co. vigorously oppose the Alliance for Responsible Mining's initiative drive and have already slowed it down in court.
After state officials approved the wording of the initiative in March, the mining association and two mining company employees appealed it to the state Supreme Court, which required some minor changes to the initiative in early May.
Stuart Sanderson, mining association president, says the way the initiative is written is unclear, misleading and unnecessary. Stricter regulations, approved since the Summitville spill, ensure "there won't be a repeat of Summitville," he says.
"They (say they) want to ban the use of cyanide, but what they are really after is banning surface mining for gold and silver," says Sanderson. "They want to alarm the voters."
The association argued that the word "cyanide" in the initiative title will lead voters to associate the mining practice with poisoning and capital punishment, but the court rejected industry claims that the word was misleading.
The Cripple Creek mine is moving ahead with its expansion plans, and it's likely that its proposal will be approved before the November election. But the initiative is still making the industry nervous.
"This is an attempt to prohibit the operations of a lawfully permitted, state-of-the-art mine and shut it down, putting hundreds of people out of work," says Sanderson. "It is a dangerous constitutional precedent. Whose business will be next?"
Mark H. Hunter is a freelance journalist in Monte Vista, Colo.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- The Alliance For Responsible Mining, 719/274-0322 or www.responsiblemining.org;
- Austin Buckingham, Environmental Health Department 800/569-1831, ext. 3435;
- Colorado Mining Association, 303/575-9199.