An ancient ditch hits a glitch

  For about a year, pollutants from a defunct gold mine have been leaking into the Rito Seco Creek near San Luis, a small farming community in southern Colorado. The creek feeds the San Luis People's Ditch, the oldest irrigation ditch in the state, and many farmers fear their water supply is being destroyed.

The Texas-based Battle Mountain Gold Co., the owner of the site, "had better get into high gear and do something that's meaningful," says Maclovio Martinez, president of the Costilla County Water Conservancy District.

State officials are also pushing the company to clean up its act. Shortly after the leaks were discovered, state officials told Battle Mountain Gold to apply for a discharge permit. The company ignored the request, and instead tried to solve the problem by using snow guns to blow water from the leaking mine into the air.

When Environmental Protection Agency officials discovered more seeps this summer, the Colorado Department of Health issued a notice of violation and a cease and desist order. In late August, the company applied for a discharge permit.

Company spokesman Les Van Dyke says the situation has been blown out of proportion. "There is no risk to humans or animals or plants or anything else. This is a tempest in a teapot."

Dave Acres of the state Water Quality Control Division concurs. "It hasn't manifested itself into serious tangible environmental effects yet," he says. But, he adds, the company is "definitely impacting the stream."

Several local groups want to speed up the cleanup, and are considering legal action against the company. Roger Flynn of the Western Mining Action Project, who has been advising the groups, sympathizes with the community's need for a safe water supply. "This is the livelihood of the town," he says. "They're very afraid down there."

* Catherine Lutz

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