Cyanide ban case on firm ground
SUMMIT COUNTY – When attorney Jeff Parsons stands up to argue for Summit County’s cyanide mining ban in front of the Colorado Court of Appeals in the coming months, he says he’ll be on firm legal ground, with several precedent-setting cases to support his arguments.But in the meantime, the ban has been voided, potentially leaving Summit County open to the threat of cyanide mining.Parsons, representing grassroots groups that support a county ban on toxic gold mining, says a Colorado Supreme Court decision in a case that pitted two state agencies against each other (The Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners v. the Colorado Mined Lands Reclamation Board) clearly gives counties control over mining activities.The Blue River Group of the Sierra Club and the San Luis-based Alliance for Responsible Mining have joined Summit County’s appeal of an August decision by District Court Judge David Lass. Lass threw out key parts of Summit County’s recently adopted mining regulations, including a ban on cyanide heap-leach mining that was challenged by the Colorado Mining Association. Lass ruled that state law supercedes the county’s authority to ban the technique, which involves spraying a toxic cyanide solution over piles of low-grade ore to extract gold economically. Lass also threw out a set of performance standards aimed at making sure that any mining that occurs is in the county’s interests, according to Parsons. There is no imminent proposal for any such cyanide mining locally, but Parsons said the idea is to get ahead of the game. He said it’s important to note that Summit County wasn’t seeking to ban mining altogether, but only to minimize the risk of potentially catastrophic impacts to water quality from the risky cyanide method.In the face of some immediate threat that could occur during the appeal, Parsons said the appellants in the case could file for a temporary stay pending the outcome of the appeals court case – but only if there’s some chance of “immediate, irrevocable harm,” Parsons said.”We’re O-for-3 in Colorado when it comes to cyanide mining,” Parsons said, referring to the fact that all other similar operations in the state have had problems with toxic discharges. The Summitville disaster is the best example, but down around Cripple Creek, Parsons is representing another grassroots group seeking damages from the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company. The EPA has listed the Teller County cyanide mining operation as a serious polluter, but both the state and federal authorities soft-pedaled on sanctions, leaving it up to citizens to literally try and clean up the mess, Parsons said. The aim of Summit County’s mining regs is to avoid that scenario, he added.Statewide fight?Whatever the outcome of the Summit County case, Parsons said the activists will keep up the battle – and this case could very well end up in the Colorado Supreme Court, according to Summit County attorney Jeff Huntley.”If the courts rule against us and give deference to state law, then you can bet you’ll see a clamoring at the state level for a ban,” Parsons said. Activists have twice tried to push a tightened set of statewide mining regs through the legislature, but heavy lobbying by the industry thwarted those efforts.Since last year, the political climate has been a bit friendlier, with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. At one point, State Rep. Gary Lindstrom, D-Breckenridge, considered introducing another version of the bill during the last session, Parsons said. For now, any such measure may be on hold pending outcome of the current case. But Parsons said a citizen-led ballot initiative isn’t out of the question if the courts don’t uphold the Summit County ban, a decision that could affect similar regulations in several other Colorado counties.And if the appeals court or the Supreme Court does uphold the cyanide ban, Parsons said grassroots groups would likely go “door-to-door” in Colorado, urging other counties to adopt similar rules.Similar issues have cropped up in other states. Montana passed a statewide cyanide-mining ban by referendum – twice. The first time it passed by a narrow 52 percent to 48 percent margin in 1998. When the mining industry tried to challenge the ban, citizens voted more emphatically, 58 percent to 42 percent, for the ban.In Idaho, a push to strengthen mining regulations came from the industry itself, said Justin Hayes, with the Idaho Conservation League. When coffee-shop talk started revolving around a statewide cyanide ban, with reference to neighboring Montana, mining industry execs took notice, Hayes said. The state’s mining associations subsequently took a set of tightened regs to the Idaho Legislature.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.For descriptions of Colorado’s only open pit cyanide heap-leach mine, see the following web pages:http://www.responsiblemining.org/news/ccnv_news.html – this is theAlliamce for Responsible Mining’s assessment of the Cripple Creek Mining situation and includes some good aerial photos of the open pit cyanide mine. This is the largest gold mining operation in Colorado and the only operating cyanide leach-heap operation in the state. http://www.victorcolorado.com/mining.htm – this is the mining company’s web page, which gives a good description of the operation.
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