Gold mine in Tooele County would use cyanide to get metal

Published: Monday, Feb. 18 2013 9:27 p.m. MST

As part of the permit, Desert Hawk will have to drill a pair of monitoring wells in the mine project area at depth far greater than that of the mine — which is detailed to be no more than 160 feet deep. The nearest spring, the BLM analysis notes, is more than a mile away.

Mistakes of the past

On a national scale, the use of these cyanide leach pads to process gold have been a  costly environmental nightmare in Colorado, Montana and South Dakota, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to clean up the legacy left by mining companies that went bankrupt.

The Environmental Protection Agency has spent more than $350 million to clean up the contamination caused by the Summitville Mine perched in the Rocky Mountains east of the Continental Divide at an elevation of 11,000 feet.

More than $110 million has been spent by the federal agency at the Gilt Edge Mine in South Dakota, where the governor sought emergency action to keep the mining company from abandoning its costly water treatment program when its parent company went bankrupt. The state and federal government later sued to obtain some compensation, reaching a $30 million settlement in 2012.

Matthew Allen, an EPA spokesman, said both Superfund sites will demand cleanup for years to come.

In Montana, companies that owned the Zortman-Landusky Mine were sued by the state and federal government asserting they were illegally discharging mine waste water into the water of the Little Rocky Mountains. 

Problems at other open pit cyanide leach-style mines led to a voter ban of the practice in Montana in 1998. The law was challenged but left intact when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the issue in 2006.

Although the Montana Legislature passed a measure that would have allowed the practice to resume, Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed it in 2011.

Many of these environmental catastrophes played out in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, before federal mining regulations underwent an overhaul.

Doug Siple, a mining engineer with the Nevada BLM offices, said that state has not had any major issues with mines that use the cyanide process.

"Today's standards are very, very stringent," Siple said. "There is lot of regulatory oversight with federal and state agencies."

Cyanide and Utah

Kelly Payne, the environmental manager at Kennecott Utah Copper, said agencies were heavily criticized because of what played out at Summitville and in Montana and South Dakota, where communities had drinking supplies contaminated or nearly contaminated.

"We've been doing this for a number of years, the industry has, but I think it took a bit for the regulations to catch up, in terms of what the required protections are, and making sure mining companies are providing the right amount of assurance in bonding."

Kennecott, in fact, was the last mining operation to use the cyanide process in Utah.

Payne said the practice began in 1989 and was discontinued in 2007 at Barney's Canyon.

The water is continuing to circulate through the heaps of rock to rinse out the solution, Payne said, and eventually it will all be drained.

Over the years, there were five other mining operations in Utah that used the heap leach method of processing ore for gold or silver. Springer said none of them remain active and there were no major issues with any contamination of water or failed reclamation of the land.

One, the Drum Mine in Millard County, eventually closed because it could not meet its requirement to reline its process ponds, according to Herbert.

"They never did get the permits they needed to get back in operation."

Havenstrite said the issue comes down to location. He said it is problematic to situate an operation high in the mountains where snowfall and precipitation can be excessive and the mines are close to pristine water sources.

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