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
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
"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
"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. …