The Oct. 19 announcement by New York-based Asarco Inc. that it was selling its Troy and Rock Creek mine projects to the Sterling Mining Co. for $20 million has ignited a firestorm of criticism from environmentalists, who claim that the new owners have a sketchy environmental track record that threatens both the pristine nature of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness and Montana’s taxpayers.
According to Dori Gilels of the Idaho-based Rock Creek Alliance, Sterling Mining Co., a privately held Montana corporation based in Helena, is funded largely by former Montana Governor Tim Babcock and co-investor Frank Duval. Babcock recently stated that the Troy and Rock Creek copper and silver mines will be operated in a responsible and environmentally friendly manner. But Gilels says that the public should remain highly skeptical of such assurances, and instead should examine the track record of both individuals.
“Some of these same people were the architects of the Pegasus fiasco in Montana,” says Gilels. “The question we have is, what can taxpayers now expect from these same individuals who want to open yet another mine in Montana?”
Gilels is referring to the 1998 bankruptcy of the Pegasus Gold Corp., a company founded in part by Duval that operated the Zortman-Landusky mines in north central Montana, then later abandoned the site to be cleaned up at taxpayers’ expense. “The taxpayers now are essentially looking down the barrel of about at least $1 million a year for that mine,” adds Gilels.
In addition, Babcock, who served as Montana’s Republican governor from 1962-69, has been one of the chief opponents of responsible mining legislation in Montana. Most recently, he worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the mining industry to repeal I-137, the citizens’ initiative passed by voters in 1998 that banned cyanide mining in Montana. Babcock was also a leading proponent for the Crown Butte mining project near Yellowstone National Park.
Gilels and others have also raised concerns about Duval’s past financial woes. He was reportedly involved in the Bunker Hill Mine and the Star Phoenix Mine in Idaho’s Silver Valley, both of which filed for bankruptcy and left behind significant environmental liabilities. Bunker Hill in Kellogg, Idaho is currently listed as one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s largest federal Superfund sites in the nation.
Environmental groups such as the Rock Creek Alliance and the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Coalition have long opposed mining beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, fearing the threat it poses to water quality. State agencies are currently working on a final environmental impact statement for the proposed Rock Creek Mine, expected out by the end of this year. The Troy Mine operated from 1981-83 until collapsing international metal prices forced its closure.