Colorado Targets Huge Gold Mines ; the New and Old West Are Joining Forces to Pass a Ballot to Ban Open- Pit Cyanide Mining

Article excerpt

Some of them are so big they can be seen from space - holes in the earth forged not with shovels and pickaxes, but with explosives and chemicals.

They are open-pit gold mines, hewed from earth and rock then sprayed with cyanide to dissolve and filter out the gold.

During the past two decades, they've spread across the West as the most cost-effective way to cull gold from stone. But the sheer enormity of these operations - and their history of sometimes catastrophic environmental mis-haps - has a group of Colorado citizens trying to ban them here.

Last week, the Alliance for Responsible Mining began gathering signatures to put the issue on the November ballot. Already, the effort has 72 percent public support, according to one poll.

What is perhaps most telling, though, is that ranchers and longtime Coloradans - not just conservation-minded newcomers - are giving the effort urgency. And by taking up the cause of conservation, they are blurring traditional battle lines in the West.

"This initiative is coming from traditional farmers and ranchers, who are sixth and seventh-generation residents," says Roger Flynn, director of the Western Mining Action Project in Boulder. "It is not an Old West-New West battle."

Clarence Martin is one of those native Coloradans who's backing the initiative. He's a retired rancher. He worked at the local Summitville gold mine back before World War II. And he makes it clear he's not an environmentalist. ("Some of those environmentalists are plumb radical.")

Protect the water

Still, the Sanford resident is fighting open-pit mining, worried that cyanide could flow into streams and rivers.

"It's necessary that we protect our water, because it's the most important thing we have."

His concerns are not unfounded. Nearly a decade ago, releases of cyanide from the Summitville mine killed aquatic life in 17 miles of the Alamosa River. Since then, taxpayers have spent $170 million to reclaim the mine, now a Superfund site, making it the costliest US mining disaster. The tab continues to grow.

Gold mines abroad have had similar problems. In February, a cyanide spill from a Romanian gold mine decimated a 250-mile stretch of the Danube.

It's events like these that have caused born-and-bred Westerners to turn against the tradition of gold mining to support a cyanide ban.

"When you look deeper, you see that there are places in the West that have suffered some serious wounds because of past irresponsible mining practices," says David Getches, a law professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "Now we have the natives of the state saying, 'It's become unacceptable for us, too. …