Court takes up Summit mining regs
September 8, 2008
DENVER ” A Summit County ban on cyanide heap-leach mining will take center stage at the Colorado Supreme Court Tuesday. The seven-judge panel will listen to oral arguments in a case that has been wending through the courts since 2005. The case is set to be heard at 9 a.m.
Mining companies can profitably glean gold by drizzling a diluted cyanide solution over piles low-grade ore, but cyanide is toxic to humans and dangerous to wildlife, especially aquatic species.
Summit County wants to prohibit the process because of its environmental pitfalls. Backers of the ban say the open-pit process is too risky, with the potential for pollution to reach streams and lakes.
The mining industry claims it can minimize risks by using the latest containment technology.
A ruling isn’t expected for a few months, said Summit County attorney Jeff Huntley. The case is being closely watched statewide for its potentially far-reaching effects. Colorado Counties Inc. filed a brief in support of Summit County’s ban. Other counties could pass similar rules if the Supreme Court validates Summit County’s regulations.
The mining industry claims the county rules encroach on state authority.
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“We’re trying to uphold state law against an effort to balkanize the regulation of mining,” said Colorado Mining Association president Stuart Sanderson. The Summit County prohibition would impose a pre-emptive ban on a practice that is lawful and fully regulated by the state, he said.
“It’s the mining industry that’s trying to change a long-standing state law and usurp local authority,” said attorney Jeff Parsons, representing several conservation groups that have joined Summit County in the court battle.
Summit County enacted the ban in 2004 as part of a wider mining regulation update. The Colorado Mining Association won its initial challenge to the regulations in Summit County District Court in 2005, arguing that state law adequately regulates mining.
The Colorado Court of Appeals overturned that decision in 2007, upholding Summit County’s ban. The appeals court ruling pointed out that a 1993 amendment to state mining laws specifically requires mining operators to “comply with city, town, county, or city and county land use regulations.”
The mining industry argued that counties can’t ban activities in which the state has a compelling interest, but the appeals court said Summit County’s regulations fall “far short” of a complete ban.
Parsons said state lawmakers are also watching the issue carefully. The Colorado Legislature considered a law last year that would spell out local control over mining practices. But when the Supreme Court decided to hear the Summit County case, the proposed law was put on hold.
“They wanted to wait for the ruling,” Parsons said.
Parsons said he anticipates a “fierce reaction” from lawmakers if the Summit County regulations are overturned.
“It’s a water protection and a local economy issue,” Parsons said, explaining that tourism-reliant counties like Summit can’t afford the pollution risks associated with cyanide heap-leach mining.
“It not something that should be going on in a community that is reaching for environmental values,” County Commissioner Bob French said in a previous interview. “The process is extremely dangerous,” he said.
Sanderson said the local regs are a threat to mining in general and a possible first step to more restrictions. Sanderson said his group’s challenge to the cyanide ban was not aimed at questioning Summit County’s land use authority, but narrowly at the ban itself.
Parsons said several small gold mines have started up operations since the Summit County ban was adopted, showing that the rules don’t aim to block mining in general.
The mining industry touts modern safeguards against mining accidents, but environmental activists insist that cyanide heap leach mining remains very risky. As recently as July 2007, a big rainstorm in Costa Rica led to concerns about potential water pollution at a cyanide heap-leach operation run by a Canadian mining company. Mudslides resulted in damage to the heap-leach pads used to contain ore on the site.