Eight years ago, Ignacio Rodriguez took his grandson out for an afternoon
of fishing near
his house on the Alamosa River in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains in southwest
Colorado. The river that runs through threviewley was his longtime neighbor, but on this
day, he said, it was a stranger.
"The rocks were red and the river had some greenish tinge to it," Mr.
Rodriguez said in a
telephone interview last week. "The fish were all belly up. Rainbow trout and German
browns - all dead. It was sickening."
Mr. Rodriguez was one of many witnesses to what state officials have
called the worst
environmental disaster in Colorado, a spill of cyanide and acidic water from a gold-mining
operation that killed virtually every living thing in a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River,
though causing no human injuries.
The company responsible for the leakage, the Summitville Consolidated
Corporation, declared bankruptcy, and its major officers fled the country, leaving
taxpayers with a cleanup bill that is approaching $150 million.
It may take decades before clean water runs year-round through the Alamosa.
account of what happened in the little valley in a remote corner of Colorado nearly a decade
ago is emerging, both sides say, as a central exhibit in the testing of the political philosophy of
Gale A. Norton, President-elect George W. Bush's choice for secretary of the interior.
Ms. Norton, 46, was the attorney general in Colorado when the Alamosa
with waste from the Summitville mine, and it was under her that many of the legal
proceedings against the mine were initiated. Even Ms. Norton's political opponents in
Colorado say that her office did a commendable job in trying to get compensation for the
damage, though they criticize her for not pressing criminal charges.
But it is not Ms. Norton's conduct as the state's chief legal officer
that is being debated in
connection with the Summitville mine. Rather, it is her philosophy. Ms. Norton, like Mr.
Bush, has long advocated allowing the mining, timber and oil industries more leeway to
police themselves. Their argument is that if businesses are given incentives, like immunity
from fines and prosecution, for reporting and cleaning up their own pollution, most will do
the right thing - a so-called self-audit.
Ms. Norton has also been a consistent advocate of states' rights and
interference. But in the Summitville case, it was the federal government that stepped in,
acting on an emergency basis after the poisoning of the river to avert an even larger
disaster, and later winning felony criminal convictions against many of the corporate
owners of the mine. The state welcomed the federal intervention.
"The whole problem with Summitville goes back to the essential trust
that the state put in
that mining company," said Larry MacDonnell, former director of the Natural Resources
Law Center at the University of Colorado. "Summitville is a poster child for the inadequacy
of that kind of philosophy."
Regulation was so lax, and state laws so weak - both were strengthened
after the mine
disaster - that Summitville is seen by members of both parties in Colorado as a lesson for
the vigilance that government needs to keep over potential polluters.
Ms. Norton, like other cabinet choices, could not comment on past official
her confirmation hearing.
But five years ago, when she was asked about how her philosophy of giving
incentives to come forth squared with the Summitville case, she said, "This was an
unusual case, a situation where the individual in question knew about continued
environmental problems and continued with operations in spite of that."
In her writings and speeches, Ms. Norton has preached a new kind of
less dependent on federal policing, for example, "We need to give good businesses the
incentive and the tools to be good environmental citizens."
The death of the Alamosa River affected Ms. Norton deeply, said people
who worked with
her when she was attorney general from 1990 to 1998.
"Summitville to her was a disaster of huge magnitude," said Tim Tymkovich,
as solicitor general for Ms. Norton. "Gale's philosophy would be not to let polluters off the
hook," he said, but to give industries a chance to comply with regulations before acting to
Supporters of Ms. Norton expect her to bring big changes to managing
the more than 500
million acres of public land, from national parks to wildlife refuges, and to regulating the
thousands of mines operating on federal property. As a protégée of James G. Watt, who
angered environmental groups as Ronald Reagan's interior secretary, and as a onetime
delegate to the Libertarian Party presidential convention, Ms. Norton has advocated
free-market approaches to solving environmental problems.
But even Ms. Norton's staunchest allies say the Summitville disaster
points to the
limitations of the free- market, hands-off approach.
"Self-auditing without the potential to bring down the hammer will not
work," said Terry L.
Anderson, who is a member of the Bush transition team on the interior, and is director of
the Political Economy Research Center, a free-market environmental research group in
Bozeman, Mont. Mr. Anderson suggested Ms. Norton to Mr. Bush for the interior post.
"What Gale Norton will bring is reform, but not revolution," Mr. Anderson
said. "To think
that she will come in and let the polluters off the hook if they only agree to 'fess up is dead wrong."
But people who live in the valley that lost all aquatic life to a mine
that was, according to
court documents, poorly regulated, say they fear that Ms. Norton will bring a philosophy to
the office that only invites more Summitvilles.
"You should not let the coyotes guard the sheep pens," Mr. Rodriguez said.
Dr. Colin Henderson, a physician who lives near the Alamosa River, said:
at the time this river was killed was to let industry police itself. You had a river where
people used to catch fish, that people used to camp next to, where people used to rely on
it for good irrigation water for their crops. And now it's been killed."
As interior secretary, Ms. Norton would have broad discretion over thousands
of mines on
public land. Under a 1872 mining law, companies or individuals are able to buy the public
land on which they make their mining claim for only $2.50 an acre, a condition that the
departing interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, has ridiculed as a giveaway of epic
proportions. Mr. Babbitt has enlarged the regulatory power of the interior secretary, using
his office to deny permits to mines that are considered a threat to environmental or cultural
treasures owned by all Americans.
"Babbitt could not get the Congress to reform the mining laws, but he
reformed them himself through administrative actions," said David Getches, an
environmental law professor at the University of Colorado. "Gale Norton will inherit that
legacy of discretion. And she can use it either way."
Most months, the Alamosa River is a slight stream that falls steeply
from headwaters at
12,000 feet in the high cradle of the San Juan Mountains. It drains into a valley of hay
farmers, ranchers, urban exiles and others who live in one of the driest of the high valleys
of Colorado, before it slows to a trickle and breaks into small creeks. Threviewley is
sparsely populated, and so far the biggest complaint of farmers has been that the acidic
water has corroded their irrigation equipment. Many residents have stopped using the
water on their vegetable gardens.
People have been mining gold in the mountains above the valley for more
than century, but
it was not until the late 1980's that a new method was used. At Summitville, the method
involved crushing millions of tons of rocks and heaping them into giant piles, then soaking
them with a cyanide solution that leached the gold from the rocks. The mine was operated
for about five years, until 1992, by Summitville, whose major shareholders were in
Canada. At the time, the mine was leaching gold with cyanide, Colorado was in a deep
recession and its Legislature cut back on enforcement and regulation of mining
The mine was supposed to be supervised by the state, but from the very
according to court documents, the plastic linings of containment ponds that held the stew
of toxic waste were not properly installed - and the state never caught the problem. The
linings were breached, sending poisons into the river. At the same time the mine became
a money pit of financial losses.
In late 1992, just as the toxic waste water was filled to the brim and
threatening a heavy
spill into the valley, Summitville declared bankruptcy and shut down operations, and its
officers fled. It was left to the Environmental Protection Agency, using company workers
familiar with the operation, to keep the toxins at bay. It is a continuing operation that
federal officials say could go on for two more decades.
"The river was killed for 17 miles, but it would have been a heck of
a lot worse if the feds had
not stepped in," said Roger Flynn, who served on the governor's Summitville task force and is
the director of Western Mining Action Project, an environmental group in Denver.
"At the time, our regulatory agencies had been gutted," Mr. Flynn said.
"So we gave this
mine the benefit of the doubt - laissez-faire, hands-off, the company says everything is fine
- and look what happened."
Several corporate leaders of the mine were indicted by a federal grand
jury and pleaded
guilty to numerous felonies, including failure to disclose discharge of toxic waste. The
state civil suits against the mine operators were begun in 1996, with Ms. Norton's office
joining the federal government in seeking repayment for the millions of dollars spent by the
public to control the waste and clean up the mine.
But the state was criticized for its role. "Kudos to federal prosecutors
for pressing criminal
charges in the Summitville Mine disaster," The Denver Post said in an editorial in 1995.
"Nonetheless, it's a shame that Colorado must rely on the feds to pursue the case."
Ms. Norton's wanted to pursue state criminal charges, Mr. Tymkovich
said, but was unable
to do so because of technical problems with other state agencies, and because the
statute of limitations had expired by the time state criminal investigators were on the case.
Just two weeks ago, the new attorney general of Colorado, a Democrat,
announced that his office had reached a settlement with one of the principal shareholders
in the mine, Robert Friedland, a Canadian businessman based in Singapore, who agreed
to pay more than $27 million over the next 10 years to help pay for the cleanup. The state
is still trying to get money from five corporations that were involved in the mine, dating to
the middle of the last century.
Ms. Norton vigorously pursued the owners of the mine, the state lawyers
involved in the
case said. "The legal work that Gale did laid the groundwork for the settlement that Ken
Salazar was able to obtain," said Mr. Tymkovich, the solicitor general under Ms. Norton.
In years where there is little snow runoff from the mountains, the Alamosa
River bears a
faint resemblance to its old self, a river that held numerous trout, say residents of the valley
in the shadow of the San Juan Mountains. But in years of heavy rain or snow, the toxins
still tumble down into the drainage and the river, reigniting the anger of people who live there.
"I grew up in this valley," said Cindy Medina, a resident. "I used to
camp near that mine
and went tubing in the river with other kids. Now we have to live with one of the largest
mining disasters in the United States. To say the least, we don't believe in self-auditing."