Mining regs tightened in Summit County
May 11, 2009
SUMMIT COUNTY ” Several months after the Colorado Supreme Court voided a local prohibition on cyanide “heap-leach” mining, local planners are tightening county regulations to control the chemically based gold-mining process without an outright ban.
Heap-leach mining involves spraying a diluted cyanide solution over piles of crushed low-grade ore to extract gold. There is no immediate proposal to operate such a mine in Summit County, but even the distant threat of a cyanide spill was enough to prompt adoption of the ban in 2004.
As argued before the Colorado Supreme Court, the case centered on the limits of local authority over mining. Summit County claimed local governments have the right to block activities that could potentially threaten local water quality and fisheries.
The Colorado Mining Association argued that state laws adequately address environmental concerns. Allowing counties establish local bans on certain types of mining would result in patchwork of regulation that could hamper the economically significant activity in the state.
Now, the county will strike the ban from its regulations, per the court ruling, but will look at other ways to maintain local control.
“The commissioners asked us to look at this and make some changes to our codes,” said county planning director Jim Curnutte.
One area planners will explore are stricter performance standards for mining. Such standards would require mining companies to beef up the plans for emergency operations, including the clean-up of any potential spill, Curnutte explained.
The changes would make it easier for local planning boards to review proposed projects and to issue stringent conditional use permits.
Cyanide is highly toxic to wildlife and humans even in minute quantities, thus the concern over potential heap-leaching operations. Watchdog groups claim that even well-run cyanide mining operations are prone to dangerous spills, and often cite the Summitville disaster near Alamosa as a prime example of the dangers.
The mining industry says modern technologies and regulatory updates after the Summitville spill are adequate to safeguard public health and safety.
Curnutte said the county would also look at applying its so-called 1041 powers to review and regulate mining operations.
Local 1041 powers stem from a 1974 state law enabling local governments to “designate certain geographic areas and specified activities as matters of state interest.” Those powers have sometimes been used to exert authority over projects like pipelines.
According to Curnutte, Summit County may look at designating specific mining or mineral zones that would subsequently be subject to local 1041 permitting authority.
Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at email@example.com.