In Europe, the most devastating environmental disaster since Chernobyl is wreaking havoc on residents and wildlife along 250 miles of rivers, where cyanide spilled from a gold-mining operation flows downstream with the current. The spill may have taken place on another continent, but the case is too close for comfort for those of us living in Washington state.
Besides the poison itself -- which has virtually eliminated all life in the lovely Danube River and some of its tributaries -- the mining spill is also killing off wildlife that drink from the river. And fishermen, farmers and others who rely on the river for their livelihood are devastated. Meanwhile, the Australian company that owns the gold mine refuses to take responsibility for the destruction, claiming that government officials are "grossly exaggerating" the spill's damage.
It raises the specter of what we risk here in Washington from the poorly planned, ill-conceived scheme by the Battle Mountain Gold Co. to put a massive open-pit mine using cyanide to extract gold in the Okanogan Highlands. Already the company refuses to accept the decision of the state pollution control board, which found that its environmental protection plans "suffer from serious omissions and flaws."
Battle Mountain is now working to ensure that politics trumps sound science. Few will forget how our senior Sen. Slade Gorton cut late-night back-room deals on behalf of the mining industry last May that effectively legalized the dumping of poisonous waste on public land.
Today Gorton and some conservative Republican lawmakers in Olympia are backing Battle Mountain Gold's quest to get Gov. Gary Locke and the Department of Ecology to join it in appealing the pollution board's decision. These elected officials are working to subvert our state's process set up to ensure that such proposals receive adequate review and don't jeopardize public safety. They hope to circumvent, rather than comply with, the board's decision to put Washington's environmental health ahead of corporate profits.
Gorton has chosen to line up on the side of his political contributors to the detriment of our state's environment, public health and long-term economic vitality.
If the toxic mining spill in Europe seems too far removed from us to serve as a lesson for Washington state, consider this: There have been cyanide spills and other mining contamination in the Pacific Northwest already, although on a much smaller scale. But must we wait for a repeat of the Danube disaster here before we enact mining reform laws?
Existing regulations are not strong enough. Midnite Uranium Mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation proves that. There have been numerous instances of contamination as a result of the now-abandoned operation, with toxic waste and heavy metals seeping into groundwater, polluting the aquifer below and nearby wetlands. Now, the EPA has proposed putting the area on the Superfund site, which means it would be eligible for tax money to help pay for the cleanup. We need stronger laws in place that require companies to clean up their own pollution or, better yet, keep from contaminating the land in the first place.
Groundbreaking reporting by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has unveiled negligent mining practices in nearby Montana, where thousands of residents were exposed to an extremely toxic form of asbestos called tremolite while U.S. officials failed to notify the public. At least 192 people from the town where the mine was located have died from asbestos-related illnesses and at least another 375 people have been diagnosed with related diseases. Meanwhile, internal documents from the company responsible, W.R. Grace, show that the company determined in the 1970s that its asbestos caused health problems. Yet it did nothing.
Until we can pry loose the industry's grip on our public officials and modernize U.S. mining regulations, accidents and routine contamination will remain commonplace, since there is little incentive for companies to prevent them.
A report by the Mineral Policy Center last fall found that even American mines that are touted as state-of-the-art are at risk for disastrous environmental mishaps, with the potential for leaking cyanide and acid pollution into rivers, lakes and streams.
Much of the mining in the United States takes place on public lands, where the federal government allows commercial ventures to degrade our heritage for a pittance. It's time that Gorton and his mining-subsidized cronies in Congress cease blocking federal mining reform and begin making health and environment a priority. Mining disasters are a public health risk we don't need to take.
Bill Arthur is director of the Sierra Club's Northwest Office.
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