No One Has the Right to Endanger Others
Montana Voters Nix Use of Cyanide Poison in Mining
by Pratap ChatterjeeA decision by voters in the northwestern state of Montana ordering the mining industry to stop using cyanide in its operations has provoked a major legal battle.
In Tuesday's mid-term congressional elections, citizens approved an initiative forwarded by the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) that would ban the use of cyanide for new gold mining operations including expansions of existing mines.
Cyanide is the chemical of choice in the gold industry throughout the world. More than 90 percent of the 2300 tons of annual global gold production is extracted using this chemical.
The United States, which is the second largest gold producer in the world after South Africa, pioneered the large-scale cyanide "leaching" process in Nevada and Montana in the 1960s and 1970s.
Popular concern over this technique has focussed on the lethal impact of cyanide. A teaspoonful of two-percent solution of cyanide can kill a human adult. Cyanide blocks the absorption of oxygen by cells, causing the victim to effectively ''suffocate.''
Levels of two parts per million are considered lethal to humans while concentrations as low as five parts per billion in river waters can inhibit fish reproduction, according to scientists.
Today cyanide is used for most gold extraction operations but it has left a sorry legacy of environmental disasters in countries ranging from Guyana to Kyrgyzstan as well as here in the United States, say environmentalists.
On Tuesday approximately 53 percent of Montana voters backed ''Initiative 137'' on banning cyanide. "This election was about our kids and their future, changing the way that the gold-mining industry does business,'' said a jubilant Jim Jensen of MEIC.
The mining industry had the opposite opinion. "This is a blow to Montana's economy. This is a blow to jobs in Montana. This is a blow to Montana's future," said Mike Collins, president of Independent Montana Miners, a corporate welfare association.
The Montana Mining Association (MMA) and two small mining companies, Majesty Mining of Butte and Yellow Band Gold of Missoula, promptly brought a lawsuit in federal courts Wednesday, within hours of votes being counted.
The lawsuit is a serious threat to the popular initiative: many citizen initiatives in the past have been bogged down in decade long courtroom battles such as a proposed curb on the insurance industry in California.
But for the moment small communities are savoring a rare moment of triumph against the mining industry. In Montana, for example, the indigenous Assiniboine and Gros Ventre peoples had to battle for years in court to force Pegasus, a Canadian gold mining company, to clean up cyanide waste on the Fort Belknap reservation in the Little Rocky Mountains.
Although the community won the lawsuit in 1996 the company declared bankruptcy the following year, thwarting clean-up efforts.
Similar battles are being fought in South Dakota, where the Sioux tribe is currently suing Homestake mining company for waste from gold mining operations; in Nevada where the Western Shoshone tribe has brought a number of complaints against companies for dumping cyanide waste; and in Washington state where the Colville tribe is trying to prevent the arrival of a gold mining company.
The most expensive clean-up of cyanide pollution in United States history has been the 150 million dollar clean-up of the Alamosa river in Colorado below the Summitville mine after Galactic Resources, the Canadian owners, declared bankruptcy in 1992. And the clean-ups in this country pale into insignificance compared to some of the cyanide-related disasters in other countries.
For example ten miners were killed when a disused slime dam at the Harmony mine in South Africa, operated by Randgold, burst its banks and buried a housing complex in cyanide-laced mud in Feburary 1994. The following year some 3.2 billion liters of cyanide-laced waste flooded the Essequibo river in Guyana when a dam broke at the Omai gold mine, operated by Cambior of Canada.
In June this year, one woman died from cyanide poisoning after nearly 2,000 kg of the chemical spilled into the Barskoon River in Kyrgyzstan, as a result of a truck crash in the Tien Shan mountains at the Kumtor gold project, operated by Cameco, a Canadian company.
The mining industry in Montana claims that, despite the history of death and environmental destruction, cyanide is not dangerous if handled properly. Mining companies prefer not to spend money developing safer alternatives. What's more, mining executives point out, shutting down the mining industry will throw hundreds out of jobs as well as force companies out of business. Currently those jobs and companies depend on corporate welfare handouts.
Jill Andrews, MMA executive director, says: ''When you've made a 100 million dollar investment in mining, you just don't give up. My responsibility is to protect the interests of my members. And every mining company that has sold stock has a fiduciary duty to protect its stockholders.''
But the popular tide of opinion is slowly turning against the big polluting mining companies. Earlier this year Wisconsin's governor signed legislation banning sulfide mining unless a company could prove it had operated a mine safely for a decade elsewhere.
Outside the United States, Turkey is the only other country to have restricted cyanide use in gold mining in a Turkish supreme court ruling in April 1997 on the grounds that it violated the Turkish Constitutional guarantee to a healthy and intact environment.
In both cases mining companies have brought expensive courtroom battles and public relations campaigns to try to reverse the legislation.
Jim Jensen is aware of the battle ahead and he is not prepared to back down. ''Cyanide leach mining using open pits is enormously destructive to the landscape and water resources. We have had enough history with it and its failures to make the right choice, which is to phase it out, and that's what Initiative 137 does," he says.
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