Cyanide gold mining unlikely in Summit County |

Cyanide gold mining unlikely in Summit County

Bob Berwyn
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
Summit Daily News photoMining companies typically establish cyanide heap-leach gold mining in areas that historically have had mining, using the poisonous chemical to draw any remaining precious metals out of the rock.

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” Even though the Colorado Supreme Court last week rejected Summit County’s ban on cyanide-based gold mining, no one is expecting a rush of mining applications any time soon.

“I think the chances are zero,” said Summit County Commissioner Bob French.

The Supreme Court ruling theoretically leaves the door open for a cyanide mining operation, but French said the issue is not as pressing as it was in 2004, when the county approved the ban.

“It’s the principle … We don’t want people to be allowed to do that kind of thing. It’s not high on my priority list right now, but if someone wants to come in and open one, we’ll start jumping up and down,” French said.

Given that heap-leach mining generally occurs on a large scale, with the piles of ore covering several acres, local officials said it’s unlikely that there is a patch of land in Summit County that could be used for such an operation.

Nevertheless, the county adopted strict mining regulations in 2004, including a blanket prohibition on cyanide heap-leach mining, a process that involves drizzling a cyanide solution over piles of crushed ore to separate gold from the rock.

Since cyanide is extremely toxic even at low concentrations, local officials deemed the risk of a spill as simply too great for Summit County. In a recreation-based economy, the value of clean water and healthy fish populations far outweigh the potential profits from gleaning a bit of remnant gold, commissioners said when they approved the ban.

The county will have to rewrite its mining regulations to address the court decision, said planning director Jim Curnutte. The commissioners may also consider tightening existing regulations to address potential mining proposals, according to county attorney Jeff Huntley.

One option would be to establish a strict conditional-use permit system to address mining proposals at specific sites. If the conditions can’t be met, decision-makers have the option of denying the application, Curnutte explained.

Curnutte said the planning staff will wait to get direction from the county commissioners before proceeding with any code changes.

Some of the tailings piles left over from Summit County’s mining heyday still may contain significant quantities of gold. The climbing price of valuable metals may make it more economically appealing to explore waste rock from old mines.

Colorado Mining Association president Stuart Sanderson said he doesn’t know of any plans or proposals to mine gold in Summit County. But the area’s mining history could keep it on the radar screen for mining companies if the economics are right.

“They (mining companies) look at areas where gold was mined before,” Sanderson said.

Some historic mining areas in southwestern Colorado have been revisited with newer technologies in the past few decades, he said.

Mining companies could use cyanide heap-leach mining at old sites to profitably extract gold, cleaning up after themselves as they go along. That could result in improved environmental conditions over the long run, Sanderson explained.

Colorado mining laws were revised in 1993. The stricter rules require mining companies to prove up front that their environmental safeguards work. That “regulatory gauntlet” probably has discouraged some other start-ups around the state, Sanderson said.

Sanderson said there is only one operating cyanide heap-leach mine in Colorado. The Cripple Creek-Victor mine has been using the method for 15 years without any problems, he said.

Environmental activists are not convinced, pointing to a laundry list of cyanide-related environmental disasters to back up their claim that the technique is too risky.

Check out: for information on Colorado’s only operating cyanide heap-leach mine.

Support Local Journalism