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Mining Loopholes Threaten CO's Water



May 21, 2012

GILLMAN, Colo. - It's the single largest source of toxic waste in the U.S., and some worry that loopholes in the Clean Water Act could allow the mining industry to turn Colorado's lakes and rivers into dumping ponds for waste. One loophole allows mines to treat nearby lakes, rivers and other wetlands as "water treatment systems," exempt from Act provisions. The other allows for toxic mine tailings, or waste, to be treated as "fill." Prior to 2002 that designation was limited to non-toxic waste such as rock, soil and clay.

Tony Turrini, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, says the solution isn't to stop mining, but to make sure it's done sensibly.

"We certainly appreciate the economic benefits that a mine can bring to a local community, but we do insist on responsible mining. Discharging waste into waters is not responsible mining."

The National Wildlife Federation and other groups are calling for the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to close the two loopholes, saying it will allow for new hardrock mining at proposed sites while at the same time preserving Colorado's environment.

Dick Parachini is the Clean Water Program Manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He says permitting protections put the onus for safety and cleanup on mine operators.

"Can the mining company find a solution so that they can extract that resource and do their operations and not have any impact on the environment? The challenge really is on them."

Ken Neubecker, director of the Western Rivers Institute, says that's because pre-Clean Water Act mines often left a stain on the state's landscape.

"The old mining operations, the operators essentially closed down the mines and then abandoned them. And we're left with the mess."

Meaning such locations as the Eagle Mine near Gillman, Colorado, which sterilized the Eagle River and is now a Superfund site. Supporters say closing the Clean Water Act loopholes will help prevent those conditions in the future.

Kathleen Ryan, Public News Service - CO