South Dakota tells a mine to stay put

  • BLACK HILLS GOLD: Should the state help to mine it?

 

DEADWOOD, S.D. - South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow, R, has a reputation for getting tough with Canadian companies. The popular four-term governor made news last fall when he stopped Canadian farm exports at his state's borders, but environmentalists say his attempt to salvage a bad mining situation is wrongheaded and could only make things worse.

At issue is the 6,000-acre Gilt Edge gold mine, located on private land four miles southeast of Deadwood in the Black Hills. Canadian-owned Brohm Mining Corp. began mining and leaching ore with cyanide here in 1988. Then in May, the company announced it was broke and would abandon the site, leaving behind a water treatment plant that keeps polluted runoff from reaching nearby creeks.

The abandonment threatens to saddle the state with about $20 million in cleanup costs, plus the expense of running the water treatment plant in perpetuity. The state holds only $6 million in reclamation bonds from the company, an amount officials admit they've known was insufficient.

"We pretty much milked them for everything we could get," says Mike Cepak of South Dakota's Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Janklow vows that South Dakota taxpayers won't get stuck with the bill for Brohm's cleanup, and he quickly went to court to prevent the company from fleeing. His critics complain, however, that he's too kind to the company. That's because the governor backs a company proposal to expand its open pit onto 17 acres of adjacent Forest Service land. He argues that this will generate enough gold to pay for the cleanup and save taxpayers from footing the bill.

The state and the Forest Service have approved the plan; environmentalists are fighting it.

"I don't like the blackmail that really is implicitly involved in a company being able to say ... that we won't be able to pay for cleanup unless you let us mine," says Dick Fort of the South Dakota-based ACTion for the Environment.

South Dakota's troubles are not unique. Governors in Colorado, Montana and Idaho have all seen Canadian companies with similar operations declare bankruptcy and flee, leaving millions of dollars in cleanup costs at taxpayers' feet.

Just four months after abandoning the Gilt Edge mine, the Denver-based Brohm walked away from its troubled Stibnite gold mine on the South Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, leaving taxpayers with the cleanup bill.

Fort says he'd support a taxpayer-funded cleanup before advocating an expansion at the Gilt Edge, because the mine has a six-year history of water pollution violations.

He also doubts that a company already in financial trouble will ever be able to generate enough money to clean up the site, especially during a slump in world gold prices.

Brohm officials have refused for months to talk to the media. The governor himself has also had little to say on the subject.

State officials say they're constrained from talking about the mine until two lawsuits filed by ACTion for the Environment and Citizens to Restore Terry Peak Mountain, alleging Clean Water Act violations, are resolved. A third suit by a coalition of five local environmental groups and the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe also names the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Brohm as responsible for failing to maintain the quality of two area streams.

Jay Tutchton, whose University of Denver-based Earthlaw law firm is handling the suits, says the state has left activists with no choice other than filing suit. "The state's enforcement has been lackluster."

Eric Whitney is the associate producer for public radio's High Plains News Service in Billings, Mont.

You can contact ...

* Gov. William Janklow, 500 E. Capitol Ave., Pierre, SD 57501 (605/773-3212);

* Dick Fort, ACTion for the Environment, HC 37, Box 2421, Lead, SD 57754 (605/584-3832);

* Brohm Mining Corporation, 303/573-0221.

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