Cyanide gold-mining ban challenged in high court
September 9, 2008
DENVER ” Invoking a 1992 pollution disaster, attorneys for Summit County told the state Supreme Court Tuesday that counties have the right to ban a cyanide-based gold mining technique if they believe it will hurt the environment.
An attorney for the Colorado Mining Association argued that counties that prohibit the practice are trying to usurp powers reserved for state regulators.
The court heard arguments in the mining group’s lawsuit seeking to overturn Summit County’s ban on the use of cyanide to extract gold from ore. The justices did not say when they would rule.
Attorney Josh Marks, representing Summit County, said local officials are concerned about a repeat of the Summitville gold mine disaster, when a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River was rendered lifeless after a containment basin failed, releasing water tainted with heavy metals.
The cleanup cost taxpayers more than $200 million.
“The counties are concerned about contamination of watersheds and the catastrophic consequences of another Summitville,” Marks said.
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Justice Greg Hobbs told Marks that Colorado has a long history of supporting mining operations, and he questioned whether the county has the authority to ban a procedure approved by state regulators.
Marks replied that if state law allows counties to limit where mines can be located through zoning and land use regulations, “they have the power to say that’s not appropriate.”
Paul Seby, an attorney for the mining association, said state lawmakers had the opportunity to ban the cyanide technique when they tightened regulations after the Summitville disaster, but they chose to regulate it instead.
Seby said Summit County was trying to force the industry to use techniques that are economically unfeasible.
The technique in question is cyanide heap-leach mining, where cyanide solution is sprinkled on crushed, low-grade ore in lined pits. The cyanide dissolves gold from the ore and the metal is extracted from the cyanide solution.
Some of the cyanide can be reused. The remaining ore is treated to dilute or remove chemicals.
Summit County banned the technique in 2004, citing the risk of water pollution. The mining association filed suit in district court to overturn the ban and won, but the state Court of Appeals later sided with Summit County.
The Court of Appeals ruling also let similar bans stand in Conejos, Costilla, Gilpin and Gunnison counties.