MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Friedland's shame: Summitville Saga nears sorry conclusion

Published by MAC on 2009-04-27

Two decades ago, the US suffered its worst mining disaster in recent memory when heap leach pads at a gold mine in Colorado collapsed, resulting in the poisoning of almost an entire river system. The operating company of the ill-fated Summitville mine was owned mainly by Canadian "renegade" investor, Robert Friedland (soon to be immemorialised as "Toxic Bob").

Friedland quit the scene and fled the US just as officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, and Colorado state came knocking at his door. He was eventually forced to cough up US$20 million towards site reclamation charges - a pittance compared to what his other companies have raked in over succeeding year.

Now an end to this dirty and destructive episode looks like being in sight - albeit with tax payers having to fork out more than ten times what Friedland actually had to pay.

Colorado mine recovery cleans up toxic Canadian legacy

Randy Boswell, Canwest News Service

18th April 2009

An abandoned, Canadian-run gold mine on a Colorado mountaintop -- hailed 25 years ago as a technological marvel and an economic boon for the state -- is again poised to generate hundreds of jobs and "jump-start the local economy," the U.S. government has announced.

But the planned $25-million US federal investment in the Summitville mine site south of Denver isn't the kind of international economic impact Canadians can crow about.

The money, to be spent as part of U.S. President Barack Obama's $5.5-billion US Recovery Act stimulus package, is earmarked for a bid to finally end an environmental disaster left behind when Vancouver-based Galactic Resources went bankrupt in 1992 and closed its pollution-spewing gold operation in the San Juan Mountains, headwaters of the Alamosa River watershed.

Obama's new secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, first gained national prominence as the crusading chief of Colorado's natural resources department who battled with Galactic in the 1990s over Summitville cleanup costs - which have far outstripped the estimated $80 million to $100 million in gold extracted from the mine during its short, ill-fated existence.

And now, Salazar says the infusion of federal funds for a state-of-the-art waste-water treatment plant will help restore the poisoned Alamosa River and "close a difficult chapter in Colorado's history."

Galactic's legal fight with the U.S. authorities eventually led the Canadian firm's founder, mining mogul Robert Friedland, to pay a $20-million settlement to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado's public health department.

As part of the settlement, state and federal authorities acknowledged that several of Galactic's U.S. partners in the mine shared responsibility for the environmental damage.

In 1988, at the height of a Galactic-fuelled "gold rush" then sweeping the U.S. mining industry, Friedland pointed to his company's cyanide-spray leaching method of extracting gold from a century-old Colorado mine site as key to the project's potential.

"The industry is growing by leaps and bounds," he said at the time, "and the impact of the technology has been dramatic - very dramatic."

The drama, however, turned out to be the tragic kind. Winter snows overwhelmed the mine's waste-water recovery system and a toxic stew of heavy metal and other chemicals drained into the Alamosa watershed, creating what was soon described as a "deadened" river along the Colorado-New Mexico border.

The Alamosa is a major tributary of the Rio Grande, which forms much of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The exposed, metal-rich rock at the Summitville mine site continues to plague the Alamosa watershed. After nearly two decades of EPA-led environmental remediation efforts and at least $200 million in cleanup costs, it remains a major source of pollution.

One EPA official told U.S. reporters this week that the site's current water-treatment system is "antiquated and held together with baling wire and duct tape."

Ironically, Wednesday's announcement of funding for a new treatment plant was accompanied by the kinds of bold predictions of economic benefits normally associated with the opening of a mining project - not the cleanup of an abandoned one.

"EPA has an answer to these challenging economic times," said the agency's top administrator, Lisa Jackson. "Under the Recovery Act, we're getting harmful pollutants and dangerous chemicals out of these communities and putting jobs and investment back in."

Regional EPA administrator Carol Rushin added: "This is how we create new jobs and help stimulate our economy while protecting human health and the environment.

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