July 2, 2008

Mining Firms to Pay State $20.5 Million for Resource Damage Decree Centers on Leadville Area

By Todd Hartman

Two mining giants have agreed to pay Colorado $20.5 million to compensate for a legacy of polluted streams, fish kills and contaminated groundwater from decades of hard rock mining around Leadville.

Under terms of a consent decree to be filed in U.S. District Court, ASARCO will pay $10 million and Resurrection/Newmont USA Ltd. will pay $10.5 million in "natural resource damages" to make up for the environmental harm in the mining district.

The damages are associated with the California Gulch Superfund site, an 18-square- mile region that includes Leadville and headwaters of the Arkansas River. The region has been mined for gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper since 1859.

The legal settlement for environmental damages is Colorado's second largest ever, trailing only the $35 million the Army and Shell Oil Co. agreed to pay Colorado for environmental damages at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Adams County, northeast of Denver.

The California Gulch agreement is distinct from a long- running Superfund cleanup of the site, dating to 1983, which has seen the federal government and private companies spend tens of millions of dollars to divert pollutants from the Arkansas River, among other projects.

"Today marks the close of an important chapter in our fight to protect and restore Colorado's environment," said Attorney General John Suthers. "I am very pleased that we have been able to recover more than $55 million in the past few weeks to ensure that our state's greatest resource is maintained."

Under federal environmental cleanup laws, polluters can be sued for natural resource damages as well as cleanup costs.

In this case, the money likely will be used to improve fish habitat along an 11-mile stretch of the Arkansas River, purchase open space as well as finish cleanup of the Black Cloud Mine. Work on the projects is expected to begin next summer.

Jeff Deckler, a top Superfund cleanup official at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said some of the money could be spent on projects just outside of the Superfund site but still affected by mining.

"You don't want to spend natural resource damage money on stuff that should have been part of the cleanup," Deckler said.

California Gulch includes more than 2,000 slag piles, tailings piles, waste rock piles and abandoned mine structures, as well as the Yak Drainage Tunnel, which has been the source of 70 percent to 80 percent of the contamination in the upper Arkansas River basin, Deckler said.

Aside from cleanup money already spent - which the private companies are not obligated to reveal - and the $20.5 million natural resource damage settlement, Resurrection/ Newmont will spend an estimated $118 million operating a water treatment facility at the Yak Tunnel in perpetuity.


About the California Gulch Superfund site

* Where: 18-square-mile area in and around Leadville

* History: Mining since 1859 through the late 1990s

* Biggest player: Resurrection and ASARCO formed a joint venture in the mid-1950s to explore and extract minerals from most of the site.

* Contamination: Mining and smelting operations tainted soils, groundwater and surface water with zinc, lead, cadmium and arsenic. The metals heavily damaged Arkansas River fisheries.

* Superfund history: The site was put on the federal Superfund priority list in 1983. Since then, both the federal government and private companies have spent tens of millions of dollars on cleanup.

* Cleanup status: Work is roughly 90 percent complete. The content of metals in rivers and streams has been reduced greatly, although not yet fully within standards.

* Remaining work: Continue to cover and revegetate tailings piles. Two treatment plants, one operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and another by Resurrection/ Newmont USA, will likely operate in perpetuity.

Originally published by Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News.

(c) 2008 Rocky Mountain News. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.