MAC/20: Mines and Communities

US update

Published by MAC on 2007-05-25


US update

25th May 2007

In yet another potentially successful move to reverse the anti-environment and pro-business (including pro-mining) decisions of the Bush regime, a bi-partisan group of legislators is set to re-affirm the "roadless" rule over nearly 60 million acres of national forest.

Two victories have recently been secured by those opposing reckless mining. Coeur d'Alene won't be allowed to dump waste rock into an alpine lake. (It's a decision which should reverberate across the border where recent legislation permits similar disposal.) Another company has been prevented from converting an old gold mine into a "new" rock quarry; there are suspicions that it may, in fact, be after residual gold.

Two months ago, we reported that the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was refusing to investigate alleged links between gold mining in Nevada (one of the world's biggest mining "hotspots") and increases in mercury pollution. Now a conservation organisation in neighbouring Idaho accuses Queenstake Resources of subversively leaking mercury into the air in order to reduce its recorded emissions .

Although it's not widely known, as well as being the world's biggest mining company, BHPBilliton is also a major exploiter of oil and gas. Now, the company's proposal to build a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal off the coast of California - "larger than an aircraft carrier and standing taller than the Queen Mary" - has been rejected by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For many years, Rio Tinto's Bingham Canyon copper-gold mining operations in Utah (managed by wholly-owned Kennecott) have bequeathed a legacy of arsenic, lead, sulphates and other toxic pollutants to the communities surrounding this vast mine. (It's the world's biggest single open-pit excavated by human beings.) Despite the company's major "clean-up" programme, citizens of one of these communities claim that Rio Tinto is concealing basic facts about the nature of the dangers they confront.


Bipartisan Bill Would Safeguard America's Roadless Forests

WASHINGTON, DC, (ENS)

25th May 2007

Bills to enshrine the protection of 58.5 million acres of roadless national forests in law were re-introduced in the U.S. House and Senate on Thursday with bipartisan support and the backing of conservation groups.

These roadless areas in 38 states are now at risk of road construction, commercial logging, oil and gas drilling and mining exploration, despite a rule passed in the final days of the Clinton administration that protected them. The Bush administration repealed the rule in 2005 and is fighting a court decision overturning the repeal.

Two million of those roadless acres lie in the national forests of Washington state, and it is two Washington Democrats - Congressman Jay Inslee and Senator Maria Cantwell - who are leading the legislative push to safeguard the roadless areas.

"Roadless areas make up more than 20 percent of national forest land here in Washington state," said Cantwell, a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

"It's irresponsible and shortsighted to let logging, road-building, and mining degrade these untouched forests. With so few truly wild and pristine public lands left in our country, its time to strike a responsible balance and make the roadless rule law," she said.

"These pristine forests are national treasures that should belong to all Americans, not special interests," said Inslee, who has served on the House Natural Resources Committee since 1999. "That's why it doesn't surprise me that over 90 percent of public comments have been in support of the roadless rule."

Inslee's bill has over 140 House cosponsors; Cantwell's bill is cosponsored by Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican. "This bill will preserve some of the most pristine forests of the Southern Appalachians for future generations, and will save taxpayers money as well," said Warner.

House cosponsor Congressman Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said, "By protecting these areas, we can ensure these pristine forests provide sources of public drinking water, undisturbed habitats for fish and wildlife, and barriers against invasive plant and animal species."

"This legislation represents a balance between environmental and economic concerns," said Shays. "We simply will not have a world to live in if we continue our neglectful ways."

The bill also helps address the fiscal challenge posed by the $8.6 billion maintenance and reconstruction backlog on the 386,000 miles of existing U.S. Forest Service roads. More roads, in addition to degrading sensitive lands, would only add to this backlog, the bill's sponsors say.

The Roadless Area Conservation Act is endorsed by The Wildlife Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, American Lands Alliance, Sierra Club, U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Audubon Society, National Environmental Trust and the Heritage Forests Campaign, among others.

"We applaud these members for their leadership in protecting our last wild forests," said Robert Vandermark, director of the Heritage Forests Campaign. "With the administration determined to undermine the Roadless Area Conservation Rule and placing our last pristine forests at risk, Congressional action to stop these efforts could not be more timely."

In May 2005, the Bush administration repealed the Roadless Area Conservation Rule that was approved in January 2001 after years of scientific study, more than 600 public hearings across the country, and 1.6 million official public comments, most in favor of strong protections for the roadless areas.

Instead, the Bush administration established a system that requires state governors to petition the Secretary of Agriculture to protect roadless areas on national forests within each state.

A recent decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the Bush administration's repeal of the roadless rule illegal and reinstated the 2001 rule as the law of the land.

But the Bush administration, along with the timber industry, filed an appeal challenging this judgment on April 9, 2007.

Despite the legal battle, the petition process is moving forward in some states including Idaho, where the state has begun an environmental analysis covering 9.3 million acres of roadless areas across Idaho’s national forests.

Governor Butch Otter favors the petition process. "This brings us another small step closer to fulfilling the promise of a meaningful role for local folks in determining the long-term management of these public lands," Governor Otter said in April. "I hope every Idahoan who can do so takes the opportunity to weigh in on this plan so our state’s voice is heard."

Conservationists point out that the National Forest System already contains over 380,000 miles of roads and 60,000 miles of unmapped logging roads, enough to circle the Earth 17 times.

Despite the ongoing court battle, the Bush administration is authorizing logging of roadless national forests that were included in the 2001 inventory of lands to be protected.

On August 7, 2006, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon started logging in a roadless area that was protected under the 2001 roadless rule.

"The Bush administration continues to promote dangerous activities in roadless areas," said US PIRG Forests Advocate Christy Goldfuss. "Fortunately, the administration may not get the last word. The American people have called for protections for our last wild places, the courts have upheld those protections, and now Congress wants to make those protections permanent."

While protecting the last one-third of America's national forests from most logging and road-building, the Roadless Area Conservation Act does allow new roads to be constructed in order to fight fires and to ensure public health and safety.

"Roadless forests are vital to maintaining viable populations of wildlife, especially large carnivores such as wolves and grizzly bears. These forests, where much of our remaining old growth is found, also play an important role in the fight against global warming by removing huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

America's roadless forests help to define the American identity, says Franz Matzner, forest and public land advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC.

"Americans have always been tied to their land, and our natural heritage is deeply ingrained in our national character. People see the growing impact of development, commercialization and global warming, and they want to know there's more out there than another sub-division or concrete parking lot," she said.

Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water from the roadless areas this bill would protect, the NRDC estimates. In addition, conservationists point out that the fishing, hunting, and scenic landscapes these forests provide generate millions of dollars for the residents of nearby communities.

NRDC's wildlife expert Louisa Willcox said, "Without the protection afforded to grizzly bears, salmon, wolves, and the entire forest ecosystem by this legislation, people in these communities stand to lose valuable sources of income and all Americans stand to lose innumerable natural resources."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2006.


US Court Blocks Alaska Mine Waste From Lake

PlanetArk US

23rd May 2007

SAN FRANCISCO - In a victory for environmentalists, a US appeals court ruled on Tuesday that a disputed permit allowing an Alaska gold mine to deposit rock waste into a natural alpine lake was illegal and would be revoked.

Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp.'s Coeur Alaska unit had hoped the Kensington mine north of Juneau -- a site mined from 1897 to 1928 -- would produce 100,000 ounces of gold annually with operations starting later this year.

The company's permit granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers would have allowed it to put 4.5 million tons of rock waste, or mine tailings, into the lake over a decade. The deposits would have raised the height of 23-acre Lower Slate Lake by 50 feet, so the company proposed building a 90-foot-high dam at the site in the scenic Tongass National Forest.

The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said no to the plan, overturning a lower court ruling.

"The toxicity of the discharge may have lasting effects on the lake and may negatively affect its ability to sustain aquatic life in the future," Judge Procter Hug wrote for a three-judge panel.

The permit, issued under a 2002 Environmental Protection Act policy change that eased mining rules, was the first to allow a hard-rock mine to dispose of tailings in a natural body of water under US environmental rules dating from the 1970s.

"The Corps violated the Clean Water Act by issuing a permit to Coeur Alaska for discharges of slurry from the froth-flotation mill at the Kensington Gold Mine," the judge wrote.

Idaho-based Coeur, one of the world's largest silver producers, said depositing tailings in the lake was the most practical and environmentally sound option. In such mining, rocks are crushed and ground and then put into a tank with chemicals and water that allow the gold to rise to the surface of the liquid. The tailing remains must then be removed.

Coeur Chief Executive Dennis Wheeler, speaking at the Reuters Mining and Steel Summit in New York on Tuesday before the ruling was announced, said that Kensington is nearly 90 percent built and could be completed by September.

"I was reasonably encouraged a couple of weeks ago when the plaintiffs ran a public interest advertisement in the Juneau newspaper suggesting they would like to sit down with the company to see if there was a way to resolve the question of the tailings disposal for Kensington," he said.

"We are very interested in continuing to explore a way to resolve Kensington."

Coeur d'Alene shares fell after the news and ended down 1.35 percent on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday.

The case could affect other mines, including the Pebble copper and gold project proposed by Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. in Alaska's salmon-rich Bristol Bay region.

In its Tuesday ruling, the 9th Circuit also said a permit granted to Goldbelt Inc., a corporation owned by Alaska natives, to build a marine terminal should also be vacated.

"The Corps' permit for construction of a marine terminal at Cascade Point critically depends on the unlawful permit to Coeur Alaska," Judge Hug wrote. "Consequently, we remand to the district court to vacate both permits." (Additional reporting by Michael Erman in New York)

Story by Adam Tanner

REUTERS NEWS SERVICE


Opp Mine excavation blocked

By Damian Mann, Mail Tribune

24th May 2007

Jackson County commissioners denied a proposal to excavate rock on the 157-acre Opp Mine property surrounded by a rural neighborhood about a mile from Jacksonville.

"There are very substantial questions that have gone unanswered," Commissioner C.W. Smith said Wednesday before about 30 opponents and supports of the historic mine.

Smith and Commissioner Dave Gilmour voted against rezoning the defunct gold mine from woodland to aggregate resource, while Jack Walker cast his no vote after expressing frustration about following complicated state rules.

"No matter what we do it gets remanded back to us," he said.

Gilmour and Smith said the mine operators, among other things, did not provide a noise study, did not do enough tests to determine how much high-quality rock is available, did not do a groundwater study and did not provide a good transportation analysis, particularly for the intersection of Mary Anne Drive and Jacksonville Highway.

"It's a very poor application, quite honestly, compared to others we've had," said Gilmour.

Walker, balking at the idea of forcing the owners to prove how much high-quality rock is available at the mine, said, "I find it hard for the government to tell the private sector what is profitable."

Smith said he agreed that some of the state rules and regulations are cumbersome, but said it's still up to the commissioners to follow them as best as they can.

"It's our job to make a decision one way or the other," said Smith. "The facts are pretty clear."

County planners determined the Opp Mine owners hadn't provided enough core samples to show there could be sufficient quantities of high-quality rock on the property. The owners estimated the amount of rock available ranges from more than a million cubic yards to 2.3 million cubic yards. They also said an undetermined amount of gold may still be on the property, which was mined at the turn of the 20th century.

"The applicants testified they had drilled a well in the vicinity of the extraction area and think that the rock is several hundred feet deep, but this was not substantiated by documentation," stated a report by county planning staff.

The report also found that there would be substantial noise generated from heavy equipment used in the mining process.

Toxicity of the existing soil from past mining operations was also not clear, the report stated. A hydrologist for the opponents found mercury contamination that could leach into groundwater.

Opp Mine foes, who wore "Stop Opp" stickers, said they don't think this will be the last they'll hear about the mine.

"I wouldn't call it a victory for our side," said Joe Hudgins, who lives near the proposed mining operation. "There will certainly be an appeal."

Medford attorney Bob Robertson, representing Opp Mine owner Frank Hardin, said he wasn't sure whether there would be an appeal. But he said, "The owners will probably file a lawsuit for the unconstitutional taking of this property."

He said the land is now virtually worthless, which he blamed on the county. "The planning staff was totally against us in this," he said.

Hudgins disputed Robertson's claim that what the county did was unconstitutional. "That sounds like utter nonsense to me," he said. "The rest of us obey the law and abide by the Constitution whether we like it or not."

Hudgins said that owners have proposed excavating rock, but he fears that they actually want to extract gold from the property. "It's classic bait and switch," he said. "I wonder how sincere their application was in the first place."


Activists claim link of mines, mercury

They say a Nevada company doctored emissions systems, falsified reports of pollution

By Judy Fahys, The Salt Lake Tribune

24th May 2007

An Idaho environmental group is calling on federal regulators to investigate a Nevada gold-mining company for allegedly tampering with its mercury emissions and underreporting them.

Toxic emissions from the smokestacks of those mines are suspected as a culprit in the mercury pollution of Utah streams and lakes, especially in the Great Salt Lake, where the highest mercury counts in the nation have been measured.

Justin Hayes, program director for the Idaho Conservation League, called Queenstake Resources Ltd.'s handling of mercury data "criminal." In a letter urging government action last week, he said Queenstake had intentionally let mercury-tainted smoke leak so that the emissions measured at the end of the stack were recorded at misleadingly low levels.

"If that is really what happened," Hayes said, "they should have the book thrown at them."

Denver-based Queenstake did not return a call seeking comment on the allegation.

Limited funding has hampered Utah's efforts to learn how the Nevada mines have affected the Great Salt Lake. But there is a growing list of ducks and fish that now have consumption advisories in the state because of their high mercury contamination.

While some mercury may settle into Utah from upper atmosphere air that comes from China, coal-fired power plants in the West or leaching from old mines, Nevada's gold mines also have been identified as a likely source for Utah's mercury problems.

Hayes' group said details from a new mercury-monitoring program by Nevada environmental officials showed a steep decline in mercury when Queenstake bought the Jerritt Canyon operations in 2003. Its letter to EPA notes emissions were about 9,400 pounds in 1998, down to 381 in 2005 and back to 9,300 pounds, based on results of the new mandatory monitoring program started by Nevada last year.

"From what we can ascertain, it appears that operators at the facility had previously disconnected or redirected vents or ducts so that mercury emissions were allowed to bypass the stack for monitoring purposes," the League's letter says.

Dante Pistone, a spokesman for the Nevada environmental regulators, said his agency has "several concerns" with the allegations raised by the environmental group and sees no need for EPA to get involved. He noted that the agency, which announced an enforcement action against Queenstake in February, has ordered the company to correct the problems.

"We think we have a good handle on it," he said.

Cheryl Heying of the Utah Department of Air Quality agreed, but added that Utah is looking closely at Nevada's new testing program to understand how the gold mines might be affecting Utah.

"We're watching," she said.


Calif. Rejects BHP Billiton Offshore LNG Project

PlanetArk US

21st May 2007

LOS ANGELES - California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Friday rejected a liquefied natural gas port off the Southern California coast proposed by Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton.

The rejection was expected. The US$800 million Cabrillo Port project has been on its last gasps since April 12, when the 12-member California Coastal Commission unanimously rejected it.

The governor is a supporter of LNG for California as a way to diversify energy sources.

But Schwarzenegger said an "LNG import facility must meet the strict environmental standards California demands to continue to improve our air quality, protect our coast, and preserve our marine environment. The Cabrillo Port LNG project, as designed, fails to meet that test."

There are no LNG ports on the US West Coast and none approved. But Sempra Energy is to open the Energia Costa Azul terminal in 2008 in Baja California in northern Mexico that will feed gas into California.

BHP is disappointed by Schwarzenegger's rejection, said Patrick Cassidy, spokesman for the company.

"For four years, BHP worked cooperatively with federal and state officials," Cassidy said. "We designed and redesigned our project along the way to meet the concerns that regulators and members of the public expressed at the hundreds of meetings we've held throughout the state since 2003.

"Right now, we need time to consider all of the comments made and as a result we are not in a position to comment on what further steps may be taken in relation to Cabrillo Port."

Also in April, the California State Lands Commission voted 2-1 against Cabrillo Port, which was to be located about 14 miles (23 km) off the coast of Ventura County.

BHP wanted to build a floating terminal larger than an aircraft carrier and standing taller than the Queen Mary. It would regasify natural gas before pumping it ashore to hook up with existing Southern California pipelines.

Natural gas becomes LNG by being chilled to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit so it shrinks to 1/600th of its gaseous state. After being transported, it is then converted back to natural gas.

Natural gas is the largest source of fuel for California's power plants largely because it burns cleaner than coal, which fires about half of the power plants in the United States.

In California, about 55 percent of in-state power plants use natural gas. Once imported power made by coal, hydro and nuclear power are considered, about 38 percent of California's power is generated by natural gas plants.

Story by Bernie Woodall


Mining for Truth

Daybreak bloggers demand fuller disclosure on potential environmental hazards at Kennecott's shiny community.

By Jonah Owen Lamb, 17 May 2007
http://www.slweekly.com/editorial/2007/cityweek_1_2007-05-17.cfm

Kennecott Land's shiny new development Daybreak advertises itself as a "community" where you can "get away at home." Brochures reinforce this image with mothers walking their babies among flowers, past colonial-revival homes with wide front porches.

What is absent from brochures yet obvious to any Daybreak visitor is the Bingham Canyon Mine operated by Kennecott Utah Copper looming in the mountains above them. The open pit has left its own legacy for Daybreak.

According to Kennecott Land, the aquifer beneath the project is contaminated with sulfates, lead and arsenic from more than a century of mining.

Cleanup of polluted water is underway. And, while Kennecott's parent company Rio Tinto has complied with all cleanup requirements and disclosed Daybreak's environmental concerns to the public, some homeowners are troubled by what they see as a lack of complete disclosure and misleading information about the property.

"You can't get a straight answer out of these people," says resident John Miller.

Not so, says Kennecott Land spokeswoman Jana Kettering. "We have been quite transparent with this information," she says. Kennecott Land's 2006 sustainable development report includes a paragraph about Daybreak's environmental past and its Website devotes a section to the topic.

Two large areas—known as "plumes"—of polluted groundwater spread beneath much of South Jordan, where Daybreak is located. One plume, straddling Daybreak to the west, is undergoing cleanup under Environmental Protection Agency oversight. The cleanup project's timeline is unknown, according to Kelly Payne, Kennecott's principle adviser for closure and remediation.

Under the plan, Kennecott must provide 3,500 acre-feet a year of clean water for the next 39 years to replace the polluted aquifer. The company sells the cleaned plume water to Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. Kennecott Utah Copper is also funding the cleanup of the other plume, which lies partially under Daybreak and near the Jordan River.

Still, requirements that each buyer sign a "covenant" acknowledging possible environmental hazards haven't slowed home sales. Neither do concerns of drinking water coming from the once-contaminated plume water.

According to Daybreak's Website, "The groundwater plume is approximately 300 feet beneath the surface of Daybreak and is not used at Daybreak or any other community in the southwest valley."

But water from the western plume is sold to people across the south valley. "One new source of water [for Jordan Valley] is from Kennecott's water treatment plant. That plant removes all detrimental substances from one of the plumes in the southwestern Salt Lake Valley and delivers it to Jordan Valley," says Alan Packard, chief engineer for the conservancy district.

Dianne Nielson, director of Utah's Department of Environmental Quality, adds, "It is safe to drink the water that has been cleaned by Kennecott, and it is safe to live at Daybreak."

The debate over safety has spilled out to bloggers in the community, who contend the company has waffled on its disclosure about environmental issues.

Dave Bastian, whose two children live at Daybreak, became concerned when he learned of the covenant, which read: "Due to the presence of elevated sulfate concentrations some of the soils are corrosive and/or conductive, which means the affected soils could cause damage to metal objects and/or certain types of concrete on the ground."

Bastian didn't feel any better after reading Kennecott's guarantee of safety: "While such sulfates, lead, arsenic and other metals in the groundwater may render the underground water undrinkable, it does not pose a health or safety concern or threat to individuals who may work, live or recreate in the Project."

Bastian's daughter, Summer, signed the document but says it was just one in a pile of papers from her real-estate transaction. "They haven't said anything to us at all," she says.

Another concern is the safety of the water in Oquirrh Lake, the 85-acre manmade lake at the center of Daybreak. Swimming is not allowed, "in order to create a diverse recreational mix for users," wrote Keith Morey, manager of Daybreak Community, in an e-mail to resident John Miller. Daybreak's website says, "Swimming will be prohibited, but only to protect the lake's natural balance, and the well-being of its resident wildlife." Yet Kennecott spokeswoman Kettering says that liability is the reason for a ban on swimming.

The lake was also stocked with more than 200,000 fish last year. Initially, people were told they could not fish there. Then they were told fishing was OK. Morey explains the change in policy came after the fish population had stabilized.

When Miller posted EPA documents and some of his concerns about fishing on the internal Website for Daybreak, his post was removed, and he was denied access. Morey explained: "The site is not intended to be used as a platform for anyone to attack the character of another individual or organization."

Miller also questioned Daybreak's disclosures concerning the community's status—or not—as an EPA Superfund site.

In Miller and Morey's exchange, Morey wrote: "None of the land at Daybreak was ever listed as an EPA Superfund site." This is true, but the site was on the National Priorities List, one step below a Superfund.

Doug Bacon, the cleanup project manager for the Utah DEQ, says Morey's statement isn't exactly correct. "Though not listed as a Superfund site, the parties involved recognized that the legacy of mining waste required cleanup to be performed following the Superfund process."

For Miller, the question wasn't just about the lake or any particular aspects of Daybreak. He wrote Morey, "It's really not about fishing or swimming. It's about hiding important past and present things from the people that live here."

 

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