High court takes up Summit mining regs
November 14, 2007
SUMMIT COUNTY ” A Summit County ban on cyanide heap-leach mining will be tested in the Colorado Supreme Court.
The court announced this week that it will consider the Colorado Mining Association’s (CMA) appeal of local mining regulations that effectively ban the practice of drizzling a diluted cyanide solution over piles of low-grade ore to extract gold.
“Trying to figure out why is like reading tea leaves,” said county attorney Jeff Huntley, assessing the court’s decision to hear the case.
Huntley said previously the CMA’s legal challenge was aimed not only at the mining regs, but could present a threat to local land-use authority.
The Board of County Commissioners enacted the rules in 2004. At issue are potential impacts to the environment, mainly the threat to local streams from a cyanide spill.
“The process (cyanide mining) is extremely dangerous,” County Commissioner Bob French said several months ago after the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in support of the county’s regulations. “It not something that should be going on in a community that is reaching for environmental values,” French said.
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According to mining industry officials, state regulations, combined with modern best management practices, adequately guard against potential accidents. The cyanide heap-leach process is the most profitable way to extract the precious metal from low-grade ore.
The see-saw legal battle over the county regulations began in Summit County District Court, where the CMA won its challenge to the cyanide ban and related performance standards. The CMA asserted that state mining laws take precedent over local regulations.
The Colorado Court of Appeals subsequently reinstated the ban, ruling that Summit County does have the authority to regulate mining practices. County commissioners lauded the decision by the three-judge appeals court panel.
But Colorado Mining Association president Stuart Sanderson said the local regs were 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.
Mining is an industry of statewide interest that needs a unified and effective regulatory framework to avoid a “patchwork of regulations,” Sanderson said.
The appeals court ruling pointed out that a 1993 amendment to the Mined Land Reclamation Act specifically requires mining operators to “comply with city, town, county, or city and county land use regulations.”
The Mining Association 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.
The Colorado Supreme Court will examine the same arguments, ultimately deciding where local land-use authority over mining begins and ends.
Several other counties have adopted similar regulations, so the Summit County case will be closely watched for what could be a precedent-setting decision.
“County commissioners must be able to prohibit specific types of mining that place our water resources at undue risk,” said local Sierra Club group chair Karn Stiegelmeier.
While the mining industry touts modern safeguards against mining accidents, 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 the ore on the site.
Cyanide is toxic to humans and dangerous to wildlife, especially aquatic species.