Albion Monitor /News

Sioux Continue Lawsuit Against Homestake Gold Mine

by Pratap Chatterjee

Four days before the papers asking for damages were filed, the mining company discharged 100 gallons containing cyanide
(IPS) SAN FRANCISCO -- The lawsuit brought by the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, along with South Dakota state authorities and the federal government, against Homestake Mining is slowly progressing through the courts.

The plaintiffs instituted legal action against the biggest gold mine in the United States for dumping 100 million tons of toxic mine tailings into the waterways of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The South Dakota mine was the first major gold mine in the United States, and probably has produced the single largest quantity of gold of any mine in the Western hemisphere.

The first suit was brought against the California-based company by the state of South Dakota in September. The second lawsuit was brought by the tribe and the federal government in late November.

Last month the plaintiffs asked federal judges to consolidate the two cases.

Ironically, four days before the papers asking for damages were filed at the federal building in Rapid City, the mining company discharged 100 gallons of mine water containing 15 to 20 parts per million of cyanide into Whitewood Creek. Homestake officials, who voluntarily reported the discharge to the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, found 65 dead fish along the creek below the discharge point.

"This case is critical to protect the health and safety of reservation residents as well as our treaty rights, waters and natural resources for the coming generations," says Gregg Bourland, the tribal chairman.

"When the environment is damaged, the polluter, not the American taxpayer, must pay to clean it up. This nation's natural resources are one of our most precious assets and we must protect them, " says Lois Schiffer, assistant attorney General in charge of the federal Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources division.

The Homestake mine allegedly has dumped cyanide, arsenic and a variety of other mining waste into the Whitewood Creek, the Belle Fourche River, the Cheyenne River and the Missouri River. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's reservation borders the Cheyenne River and Lake Oahe, a huge Missouri River reservoir.

Homestake officials condemned the lawsuit. "We have worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and all other appropriate federal and South Dakota agencies on Whitewood Creek for more than two decades and have gone above and beyond the federal government's prescribed remedy," the company declared in a news release.

"Homestake acted as a responsible corporate citizen, funding and constructing a 70 million dollar tailings impoundment and a 26 million dollar biological wastewater treatment plant," the statement added.

"Their claim that they have complied with environmental laws is erroneous and we will prove this," says Steve Emery, the Cheyenne River Tribe's attorney general. "This is a unique case because it is the first time in history that the state of South Dakota, the federal government and the tribe have acted together."

Total clean-up costs have been estimated at more than one billion dollars
The Homestake mine was set up in 1877 by George Hearst (father of maverick media magnate William Randolph Hearst), but the controversy began when prospectors first brought gold out of the Black Hills in 1852 prompting a flood of argonauts. Over the next two decades many wars were fought to oust these miners by Sioux tribes led by Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Sitting Bull.

For more than 100 years, the federal government and the Sioux tribes have been at loggerheads. Beginning in 1890, the tribes have filed legal challenges against the federal government for breaking treaties with the tribe over compensation for their traditional lands.

In 1982 the Oglala tribe sued Homestake for six billion dollars for trespassing and illegal gold extraction but the suit was thrown out of the courts making it impossible for future lawsuits to be brought for the land grab.

But these latest lawsuits on environmental grounds mark a new trend on the part of the federal government.

Just in 1996 the federal government joined the Coeur d'Alene Indian tribe to sue a number of mining companies like Asarco and Coeur d'Alene for massive pollution in the Silver Valley in Wallace, Idaho, in the north-western United States. Some five billion dollars worth of silver, lead and zinc have been pickaxed and blasted from the area in the past century.

In the same century, lead, zinc and other toxic metals have been leaching out of the waste piles that line the valley and South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene river like "tannish-red intestines left behind by a... prehistoric monster," as one local history puts it.

In one day of flooding in February 1996 alone, at least almost half-a-million kilograms of toxic lead washed into the lake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Total clean-up costs have been estimated at more than one billion dollars.

The federal government also unsuccessfully tried last year to seize the assets of Robert Friedland, a mining speculator, who fled to Canada, after his mines in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado caused the most expensive mining disaster in U.S. history.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor January 5, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page