Michele Swenson is an author and activist.
A century and a half of hard-rock mining with no accountability, without consideration for environmental consequences or downstream neighbors has taken a heavy toll in the West. Metallic, acidic wastewater from mines have a long-term effect on agriculture, ranching, aquatic life, human and wild life, and aquifers.
A 3 million gallon dump of mustard-colored toxic waste from Gold King Mine into the Animas River on August 5 raised the most recent alarm, even as the EPA estimates that the overall discharges from local abandoned mines amount to one Gold King mine disaster every two days. Colorado officials estimate that drainage from 230 abandoned mines in the state result in the failure of 1,645 miles of 105,000 miles (1.6%) of rivers and streams to meet Clean Water Act standards.
Cited as the worst environmental disaster in Colorado history, the Summitville open-pit cyanide heap-leach gold mine sits at an altitude of 11,500 feet in the San Juan Mountains, southeast of the Gold King Mine and 40 miles west of the city of Alamosa, just east of the continental divide. The devastating fallout of this form of mining led one resident to lament that the San Juan Valley had become “the poster child for how not to do mining.”
Because underground gold mines were depleted, the U.S Bureau of Mines by 1969 proposed open-pit cyanide heap-leach gold mining, with the promise of extracting small quantities of gold from large quantities of low-grade ore, ostensibly to make gold mining profitable once more, to boost the economy and create jobs. The anticipated “profitability” of open-pit cyanide heap-leach gold mining failed to factor in the profound consequences of this technique of mining to all life forms and the environment.
Unanticipated were the huge quantities of waste, and the almost immediate release of potentially dangerous toxins into the environment, with profound effects on human and animal life. A teaspoon of 2% cyanide can kill a person, and high cyanide concentrations are toxic to soil microorganisms.
From 1986 to 1992 Summitville Consolidated Mining Corporation (SCMCI), a subsidiary of Canadian Galactic Resources Mining Company, ran the company, promising a ‘zero discharge, state of the art’ facility. Millions of tons of rock were crushed to gravel, “heaped 200 feet high on a 40-acre synthetic liner,” and soaked with sodium cyanide solution to dissolve and leach out microscopic gold particles into a drain at the base of the pile, from which gold was chemically extracted.
Summitville compromised the Alamosa watershed that watered thousands of cattle and sheep and irrigated 45,000 acres of crop lands. Ranchers and farmers routinely replace headgates and sprinkler systems corroded by acidic, highly mineralized water.
By 1990 there was reported a complete kill-off of aquatic life along a 17-mile stretch of the upper Alamosa River watershed, the cumulative effect of years of acidic, heavy metal toxic runoff from Summitville Mine. By 1991, 85,000 gallons of cyanide-laced water had leaked through the damaged leach pad liners, unleashing toxic, acidic, metallic water into the underground aquifer and the downstream watershed.
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