Don’t Let Pearce-Sunsites, Arizona Become the Next Summitville Mine Disaster

Have you ever heard of the Summitville mine disaster in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado? Well, if not, here is the basic breakdown of the story, and what Pearce, Arizona may be facing if we allow Delta Gold Corporation and Commonwealth Silver and Gold Mining Inc. to push their agenda for their open-pit cyanide mine at the old Commonwealth Mine.

The Summitville gold mine, located at ~3800 meters (12,800 ft) elevation in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, was the focus of extensive public attention in 1992 and 1993 for environmental problems stemming from recent open-pit mining activities. Summitville catalyzed national debates about the environmental effects of modern mining activities, which the Canadian mining companies and their lobbyists claim are safe.

Gold was first discovered at Summitville in 1870. Significant gold production from underground workings occurred prior to 1900. In 1903, the Reynolds adit was driven to drain the underground workings and serve as an ore haulage tunnel. Production occurred sporadically through the 1950’s. The district received some exploration attention in the 1970’s as a copper prospect, but no mining for copper was pursued.

  • Gold, discovered in 1870
  • population grew to 700
  • 112 stamping/crushing machines
  • abandoned in early 1900’s
    • most of the gold harvested
    • decrease in price of gold
    • avalanches
    • landslides
    • cave-ins

Similar to many historic gold mining districts in the western United States, Summitville received renewed interest in the early 1980’s due to technological advances that allow extraction of low-grade ores with cyanide heap leach techniques. In 1984, Summitville Consolidated Mining Company, Inc. (SCMCI), initiated open pit mining of gold ore from rocks surrounding the historic underground workings, where gold concentrations had been too low to be economic for the underground mining operations. Ore from the pit was crushed and placed on a heap leach pad overlying a protective liner. Cyanide solutions were sprinkled onto the heap and trickled down through the crushed ore, dissolving the gold. The processing solutions were then collected from the base of the heap leach pile, and the gold was chemically extracted from the solutions.

1984

  • Friedland of SCMCI applies for mining permit at Summitville for cyanide-leach mining.
  • Permit REJECTED by CO State Mining Regulatory Agency.
  • Friedland complains to state legislature
  • State legislature sides with SCMCI.
    • Decides all permits must be evaluated within 6 months or or automatically approved
    • Mining regulatory personnel reduced to 7 people.
    • Results in almost automatic approval of any mining permit

1985

  • SCMCI issued permit to mine at Summitville
  • Started construction of large-scale open-pit gold mine
  • SCMCI posts $3,000,000 bond.

1986

  • HDPE liner for leach pad laid down by subcontractor
  • The purpose of the liner was to prevent leakage of the cyanide solution out of the heap.
  • liner damaged during construction by avalanches: torn and shifted
  • Subcontractor tried to fix liner
  • SCMCI would not allow the subcontractor to fix the liner
  • subcontractor sued SCMCI so they could install liner correctly and lost
  • damages liner remained and leached cyanide

1987-1990

  • Leach pads were 73 acres in extent
  • one pile > 190′
  • Drainage for leach pad: none
  • Ideas was to have ET = input once full
  • ET overstimated
  • Snowfall underestimated
    ~in the case of Pearce, Arizona think of anĀ underestimated monsoon season
  • non-permitted discharge of excess water occurred
  • Permission granted by state to discharge excess water. However, limits were placed on the contaminants in the discharged water
  • SCMCI could not meet contamination limits

1991

  • Release of toxic metals and cyanide to the Alamosa River
  • most aquatic life killed along 17 mile stretch of river to Terrance Reservoir
  • All fish killed along the 17 mile stretch and in Terrance Reservoir
  • Iron, aluminum, zinc, copper: trace metals that killed fish

1992

  • Ah, the fish kills weren’t good.
  • Even the state legislature starts to pay attention.
  • Another big snow year appears to be in order
  • Another toxic release probable
  • Report issued in November: minimum $20,000,000 clean-up cost.
  • 3 days later SCMCI walks away. Doesn’t even lock doors. Forfeits $3,000,000 bond.

1992

  • 16 December, 1992, EPA assumes control of Summitville at the request of the state of Colorado.
  • 200-million gallons of cyanide-laced water in leach pit
  • Spring runoff would triple flow into pond

Today

  • Cost to Date for cleanup: $150,000,000 and counting.
  • Clinton signs bill to increase size of environmental bonds for mining activity
  • Bush administration reverses decision and decreases size of bonds: “bonds are bad for business”.
  • Can this happen again? Yes
  • Over 75,000 abandoned mines in US
  • who will pay? You
  • Montana: state initiative outlaws cyanide mining.
    ~Why doesn’t Arizona?

NOTE: ALL OF THIS HAPPENED IN LESS THAN TEN-YEARS.

IS THIS THE FUTURE WE WANT FOR THE PEOPLE OF PEARCE, ARIZONA? IF NOT, LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS AT THE WILLCOX RANGE NEWS TO SHARE WITH OUR COMMUNITY http://www.willcoxrangenews.com/opinion/editorials/article_d1a82aae-e5fa-11e3-a973-001a4bcf887a.html

Click here to learn more about the Summitville Mine Disaster.

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One thought on “Don’t Let Pearce-Sunsites, Arizona Become the Next Summitville Mine Disaster

  1. Pingback: Commonwealth Mine update following public meeting in Sunsites | CommonwealthMine.org

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