Mancos gold mill

It is an all-too-familiar tale. Some folks figure they can squeeze a buck out of Colorado’s mineral-rich geology. They start mining and refining the ore. But they do it all on the cheap. They make a mess, get into money problems and the state steps in to try to clean things up.

The situation with the unpermitted and heavily polluted gold mill in Mancos has yet to play out, but in too many such cases the taxpayers are left holding the bag. This could well end up as another such instance, which raises the obvious question: Why do we continually allow such things to occur?

As reported in the Herald on Aug. 16, the Mancos mill is owned by Red Arrow Gold Corp. That entity recently was fined more than $300,000 for what a lawyer for the state’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety called “one of the uglier cases of using hazardous chemicals and illegal milling.” The facility has been shut since April because of a bankruptcy dispute. That raises the question as to whether this will end as so many other failed mining enterprises have – with a paper trail of defunct corporations and no clear understanding as to liability.

State mining inspectors found Red Arrow’s Mancos setup contaminated with mercury and arsenic, which are used to separate gold from mined ore. The pollution extended to machinery used to crush rock and such sophisticated devices as an overturned washtub used to catch mercury and orange Home Depot buckets used to contain sludge. A state mining official said tests found mercury concentrations of 32,000 parts per million, while the acceptable standard is 43 parts per million. That is, the mill showed more than 700 times the acceptable level.

The mine’s operator seems no more concerned for legal norms than environmental rules. Called before the state’s Mined Land Reclamation Board – and warned that the board’s rules require a personal appearance – Red Arrow’s president nonetheless sent a proxy. Worse, his spokesman apparently was there to dissemble. Saying the Mancos mill was “a very good operation,” he disputed the idea that Red Arrow was running an unapproved mill.

“It’s not a mill,” he said. “It’s a pilot plant test facility.”

Right. And French fries are a byproduct of testing deep-fat fryers.

The problem is, that kind of tap-dancing around regulatory agencies and common sense most likely will continue. In a letter to the mining division, Red Arrow’s president said the company’s assets had been frozen and a receiver had been appointed to oversee things while legal issues were resolved.

“Officers and employees of the company have been left financially destitute,” he wrote, “as a result of the bad-faith efforts of the lender, (joint venture) partner and the receiver, who all have limited or no experience with mining activities.”

In other words, the dog ate my homework and everybody else is to blame. That is how these things tend to unfold, with finger-pointing and bankruptcy.

But while Red Arrow, its president, his lender, partner and their respective lawyers wrestle with state agencies about who is liable for what, the mill in Mancos sits there with mercury and arsenic perhaps literally blowing in the wind. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is to inspect the mill, possibly with an eye toward cleaning it up as a Superfund site. And if that happens, the taxpayers will pay for cleaning up Red Arrow’s mess.

That would be better than allowing it to poison its neighbors, but it goes back to the original question: How do things get that far – and why does it happen again and again?

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