The Cripple Creek & Victor Mine near Victor can claim two superlatives: It is Colorado's largest open-pit gold mine, and, according to the EPA, it's also the state's biggest chemical polluter of water. Because Colorado has failed to rein in the mine, say two national environmental groups, they are threatening to sue the mine owners.
According to the Sierra Club and the Mineral Policy Center, the mine is releasing illegal amounts of zinc and cyanide into central Colorado's Fourmile Creek and its two tributaries, Cripple Creek and Arequa Gulch. Fourmile Creek is a popular trout-fishing spot and a tributary of the Arkansas River.
Dave Akers with Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment says the mine's toxic discharges into the Arequa and Fourmile streams are within legal limits for the state. At the same time, he adds, the mine's pollution ranks high on the EPA's "toxic release inventory," a ranking of polluters in each state. As to whether the mine has polluted Cripple Creek without getting a permit, Akers says, that's "up to the courts to decide."
The environmental groups take issue with the mine's water tests, saying that they don't give an accurate picture of what's ending up in the watershed. The mine's discharge runs through settling ponds before it's tested, the groups say, which means that many toxins leach through the bottom of ponds or run over the sides.
"There's a lot of pollution bypassing monitoring," says Roger Flynn, attorney for the environmental groups.
Brian Weiskopf, Cripple Creek & Victor's community affairs manager, says the mine has always followed Colorado's water regulations and he's confident that the courts will decide in the mine's favor.
Still, with the suit looming, the mine has headed to the negotiating table. The two sides will have through March to work out their differences, before environmental groups must file suit or drop the case.