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Spring has sprung, and it’s time to think about the great outdoors and its resources. I would argue that the most important natural resource is water. Without water, we humans will die pretty quickly. And without clean water, we face what can be a more insidious fate — chronic health problems. Here in the Black Hills, this discussion is not abstract, and mining is not a partisan issue. It’s important to everyone in a semi-arid region where most of our major drinking water aquifers and river systems are threatened by mining.

Gloomy? Consider this. All three of the water sources that Rapid City uses — Rapid Creek, the Minnelusa Aquifer, and the Madison Aquifer — are downstream from gold projects in the central Black Hills. There has been exploratory drilling near Rochford and Pe’ Sla this year, and a second company is looking for a big strike at the inlet to Pactola Lake. When it rains or snows, both areas drain into Rapid Creek.

A School of Mines graduate and former mining executive says that if there was a mining spill into Rapid Creek near Rochford during a high runoff period, it would reach Pactola in 29 to 36 minutes.

And mining spills are not unusual. Modern gold mining uses cyanide to leach the gold out of the surrounding rock. In Colorado and Arizona in 2015, a gold mine spill shut down tourism, city water, water wells, and agriculture. The impacts were felt for 150 miles downstream. Not a plus for boaters, fishers, or the $1.6 billion in annual tourism revenue in the Black Hills and Badlands.

There have been two Superfund sites (the nation’s most contaminated places) that were gold mines in the northern Black Hills, the Homestake Mine and the Gilt Edge Mine. At the Gilt Edge Mine, as at many other abandoned gold mines, the state and federal governments cannot control acid leakage. The cost for ongoing clean-up at this one mine is estimated to be $200 million.

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City elected officials have, for the most part, nodded their heads to agree there’s an issue — and done nothing. No resolutions in opposition to gold projects in our drinking water. No statements denouncing the companies’ plans. No campaign rhetoric. Our most important natural resource faces an immediate threat, and they need to get active now.

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County elected officials passed a resolution and clearly understand the issue, but we need them to do more. Insure that the new Comprehensive Plan and the upcoming hard rock mining ordinance include a ban on mining in municipal water sources. Counties have power in this situation and we need them to exercise it.

Let’s not fool ourselves. There are two known gold companies that have applied to the Forest Service for permits to explore (the Forest Service says there are two more operations that have applied for permission to explore, but they’re keeping their identities and locations secret). But we’re not “just” talking exploration here. One company, Mineral Mountain Resources, has over 7500 acres of mining claims and says it wants to dig “another Homestake” mine. The other, F3 Gold, has almost 2500 mining claims and says it “just” wants to explore. But if they strike gold, they will likely sell to the highest bidder. So we don’t know what outfit might end up mining in the central Black Hills.

Let’s start taking protection of our precious water resources seriously. For our economy. For our health. For our recreation. For our future.

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Lilias Jones Jarding has a Ph.D. from Colorado State University. Her specialty is environmental policy, and her research focuses on energy policy and on tribal-federal-state interactions around natural resources.

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