State Agency Opposes Fremont County’s Controversial Gold Mine Proposal | Pikes Peak Courier

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The promise of gold brought tens of thousands of people to Colorado and laid the foundation for a state. High gold prices and the renewable energy sector’s demand for materials like silver are now driving speculators back into the state, looking to get rich.

Interest in metal mining comes as the need for coal for power plants declines and could help boost the industry, said Stan Dempsey Jr., president of the Colorado Mining Association.

“We are going through an energy transition and this will increase the need for these minerals,” he said.

For example, silver is a key mineral needed for solar panels because it is an excellent conductor of electricity, Dempsey said, noting that Revenue-Virginius, a silver mine near Ouray, reopened this year. after closing in 2015.

Last year, Colorado was 17th in the country for its mineral production, valued at $ 1.62 billion, excluding natural gas, coal and other fuels, according to the US Geological Survey.

Interest in new mines also underscores the need for higher environmental standards across the country and in a state that still struggles with pollution from old factories and thousands of historic mines, said Jennifer Thurston, executive director of the Network. information for responsible mining, a nonprofit. Currently, mining waste generated by mining and processing is exempt from hazardous waste standards, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Dawson gold mine, proposed six miles southwest of Cañon City, faces some of these tensions. Canadian company Zephyr Minerals is pushing for the underground mine. The company is promising millions in annual economic benefits to a community still living with the contamination of the Cotter Uranium Mill, a Superfund site about three kilometers from the city that has polluted the soil and groundwater with radioactive material.

Zephyr has applied for a permit from the state’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety to extract 105,000 tonnes of gold mineralized rock annually that is expected to produce approximately 27,000 ounces of gold, according to documents submitted to the state .

Operators predict that the life of the mine will be five years, and during that time 710,000 tonnes of rock could be extracted. Zephyr Minerals executive chairman and director Will Felderhof expects annual local economic benefits to be $ 17.5 million per year, according to the Cañon City Daily Record.

Even so, the Dawson would be a somewhat small operation, experts said. By comparison, the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold mines, perhaps Colorado’s most famous mine, produced more than 25 million tonnes of mineralized rock last year, according to state production reports. In 2019, the company estimated it had contributed $ 91.5 million to the economy in the form of salaries and government payments, according to a report by mine owner Newmont.

Mine faces opposition

For some, the short-term economic benefits of the proposed mine do not outweigh the environmental concerns.

A state agency, residents and environmental groups all oppose the mine for many reasons: the owners have not been granted rights to the water, the tailings pose a risk to the watershed, the company has not specified how it will treat its water and the mine could expand into proposed land to go wild, among other concerns.

The objections sparked a public vote by the state’s Mining Land Reclamation Board on the company’s permit application which could take place in December, agency spokesman Chris Arend said.

Advocates have highlighted the lack of water rights as one of the most fundamental flaws in permits.

The Water Resources Division, a state agency that administers water rights, submitted a letter in August opposing the mining permit until operators can secure additional water rights.

“The proposed mining operation will consume groundwater through mining operations and will require new non-exempt water well permits for freshwater uses. These uses should be low priority and detrimental to other water rights holders without a plan to increase, ”the agency said in an official letter.

The Salvage, Mining and Safety Division could clear the mine pending the acquisition of its water rights, but Zephyr cannot actively operate until it fixes the issue. water rights, Arend said.

Zephyr did not respond to questions about water rights or other issues raised by neighbors or environmental groups.

The Responsible Mining Information Network also raised technical concerns about the mine proposal, saying the company had not provided information on how it would treat the reclaimed water it plans to operate on. ‘support and, left untreated over time, the recycled water could interfere with mining. to treat. Zephyr may also be underestimating how much water the mine could use – projecting only 10% of what the rest of the industry uses, said Steven Emerman, an expert hired by the association, in a report. long opposition report.

Emerman also pointed out that tailings from the mining process, a wet sandy material, will be stored in a risky location upstream of Grape Creek, a tributary of the Arkansas River. If the tailings pile collapsed, it could permanently pollute the watershed, said Emerman, owner of Malach Consulting, a Utah-based company specializing in groundwater and mining.

The permit application also does not address how things could go wrong or how to prevent them from doing so, he said.

“If I were the regulator, I would say the issues here are very fundamental.… You have to rethink all of this from the start,” he said.

If the tailings were soaked by a large rainstorm, Emerman said, it could lead to their liquefaction, in which the highly saturated soils drain like water and could reach Cañon City.

He also noted that if the 121-foot-high tailings pile is built as planned, it could pose a risk to the watershed forever.

The risk to the watershed is a top concern for local residents with the Arkansas Valley Conservation Coalition, a group formed to fight the mine project.

“Given a major rainstorm, this whole pile of tailings could collapse, coming down the mountain into Grape Creek in Arkansas,” said Mike Gromowski, a coalition leader.

The company proposes to store the tailings on 10 acres and limit the water content of the waste, a method known as dry storage. A report paid for by the company said the outer shell of the tailings will be hard and not likely to liquefy.

Dry stacking is a modern method of tailings management and can minimize the risks associated with it, said Professor Corby Anderson, mining expert at the Colorado School of Mines.

The company also indicates in its permit application that it plans to build diversion canals around the tailings to collect clean water. Potentially polluted water that seeps through the tailings will be captured in a pond, the company said.

Regarding the underestimation of the company’s water use, Michael Henderson, a research professor in the mining engineering department at the Colorado School of Mines, said underground mines tend to have too much. water rather than not enough, because they work like giant underground wells.

All of these issues around water are critical because new Colorado mines must have a plan that will protect water and the environment, said Thurston, executive director of the Information Network for Responsible Mining.

“Anyone whose water rights are downstream or who has a well in this area is potentially affected by this mine,” she said.

For opposition activist Gromowski, the leisure and tourism industry in Fremont County is far preferable to the mining industry and could be harmed by the Dawson. The proposed mine is located just north and east of a proposed wilderness area, just south of the Bureau of Land Management property considered to be an Area of ​​Critical Environmental Concern, and southwest of Temple Canyon Park, a camping and hiking area.

“Recreation is self-sufficient in its perpetuity, unlike a mine that is going to be here for five, maybe 10 years,” he said.

The company also has mining concessions with the wilderness study areas and if they disturb these areas, the property could lose the wilderness features necessary for preservation, Thurston said. The company does not apply for a permit in these areas, but if it obtains a permit to use its private property, it could apply for an amendment in the future to use public land.

“It’s easier to change a license than to get a new one,” she said.

Mining across Colorado

Interest in mining, particularly uranium and vanadium, has intensified in Colorado in part because of federal interest in building up the national uranium reserve and because vanadium can be used in batteries, Thurston said. The state is also home to rare earth minerals, needed for all kinds of electronics, and silver, key to the renewable energy industry.

However, both Thurston and Dempsey have said the regulatory path for a new mine in Colorado can be long. Environmental, social and governance goals are also becoming increasingly important to the mining industry as a whole, and banks and other lenders are asking for a firm commitment to those goals, Dempsey said.

Thurston would prefer to see updated regulations that would make it easier for the public to participate and understand the process, and stricter rules to govern tailings.

The country also needs a national minerals policy to guide mining, she said.

“There is no big picture that looks at how much we need at all levels.… Are there some places that should be off-limits?” she said.

Some mining supporters say the United States should extract more metals domestically and reduce its dependence on China and other foreign countries.

New mines could also diversify rural Colorado economies that have become too dependent on a tourism industry that does not pay workers very well.

“I think these opportunities for jobs and contributions to the local economy are really important,” said Henderson.

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