Could further regulate industry
With the state of Colorado seeing increased hard rock mining and oil and gas development in recent years, legislators are pushing to further regulate the state’s mining operations on several fronts.
Even as a comprehensive effort to reform the 1872 Mining Law wends its way through the U.S. Congress, a bipartisan group of Colorado state lawmakers have introduced the state Mining Reclamation Act reform legislation that could dramatically affect Crested Butte.
Although state representative Randy Fischer (D-Ft. Collins) said their effort is being undertaken primarily to protect their district’s aquifer from possible contamination from an in-situ uranium leaching operation, he said key provisions in the bills will help local governments retain control over mining operations and protect their water supplies.
“I had Crested Butte in mind when I drafted the bills,” he said.
House Bill 1161, sponsored by Fischer, Representative John Kefalas (D-Ft. Collins), and Senator Steve Johnson (R-Longmont) would require mining companies to show they will restore all surface and ground water to pre-mining conditions before a mining permit is granted.
A second bill sponsored by Fischer and Representative Brandon Shaffer (D-Longmont), called HB 1165, would require mining operators to provide assurance that the mine will “comply with city, town, county or city and county land use regulations…” before a permit for the mining activity can be issued.
In addition, HB 1165 obliges the Colorado State Office of Mined Land Reclamation to increase its board from seven to nine members, including a member to represent “local government interests.”
It would also require the industry to inform the public of any possible mining activity. According to Fischer, Colorado is alone among Western states in allowing prospecting activities to be kept confidential. “Citizens will actually be able to find out what mines are up to,” he said.
Fischer said Crested Butte’s efforts to protect its watershed from possible adverse effects from the proposed Lucky Jack molybdenum mine on Mt. Emmons is similar to what Weld County is facing from the Canadian uranium company Powertech USA.
“Most of these companies are based out of Canada because Canada has lax rules for securities and exchange,” he said.
According to Fischer, such laxity allows Canadian mining companies to operate without proving they have the necessary financial resources to pay for mine reclamation. Citing the Summitville mining disaster as something the bill is designed to preclude, Fischer said the bills will significantly strengthen security and bonding requirements for proposed mining operations. In the Summitville instance, a Canadian cyanide gold leaching operation was abandoned in southern Colorado, leaving a 17-mile stretch of the Rio Grande River devastated from cyanide and other heavy metal pollutants. The mining operator declared bankruptcy and taxpayers were stuck with paying most of the $155 million clean-up.
Colorado Mining Association president Stuart Sanderson argues, however, that legislative reforms implemented as a result of the Summitville disaster have effectively addressed water contamination and bonding issues.
“Last time the Reclamation Act was amended (in 1993), the state worked together with the mining industry,” he said. “That hasn’t happened yet with these bills.”
Sanderson said he is especially disappointed by the authority that would be granted to local officials by HB 1165, which he said would give them veto power over mining operations on land under their purview. “The best environmental protection rests with the state,” he said. “County staffs do not possess the knowledge or uniform standards for protection on the environment,” he added.
According to Sanderson, language in HB 1161 would effectively curtail uranium leach mining in Colorado. “Twenty percent of our energy comes from nuclear energy, but nearly 90 percent of our nuclear fuel is import-dependent,” he said. “This legislation will make us even more import dependent.”
In-situ uranium leach mining is a process in which a chemical solution is injected into a uranium ore deposit via high pressure piping in order to push the uranium to the surface through an exit pipe. Critics like Fisher contend that such pumping can contaminate ground water, both with the injection fluid and the radioactive ore.
According to an abstract of a federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission report, in-situ mining is less damaging than conventional mining. However, the report noted, the technique “still tends to contaminate the groundwater.”
Sanderson said his organization has gone to court to challenge a similar ban on cyanide leach mining enacted by Summit County officials.
Information provided by Fischer shows that the number of mining claims in Colorado has leapt by 239 percent in just the last four years. In addition, Fischer said the increase has generated increased scrutiny of mining by Coloradoans.
Right now, the legislation faces the Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resource Committee, where Fischer says he thinks the bill has the votes to pass. Still, he said mining reform in Colorado is a difficult task.
“It will have to be voted on at least six times, so it’s a pretty tough hurdle,” he said.
Both House Bills 1161 and 1165 were introduced in the House on January 16 and assigned to the Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resource Committee.