Rising mineral prices and unstable global markets are causing a surge of mining exploration across Montana, most recently in the mountains near Garnet ghost town.
“Copper is $3 a pound now,” says Warren McCullough, Environmental Management Bureau Chief for the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “Last year we had more drills turning on exploration projects than at any other year, partially because of rising prices.”
McCullough says rising anxiety over global mineral markets has also contributed to miners’ renewed interest in Montana. The possibility of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez nationalizing industry, and political uncertainty in Mongolia—both key global producers for metals—make Montana more attractive to companies looking to cash in on the copper boom.
One of those companies is Utah extraction giant Kennecott Utah Copper. Last year Kennecott received DEQ exploration permits to drill a collection of holes at the Copper Cliff Mining district of the Garnet Mountains at the headwaters of Union Creek, which drains into the Blackfoot River. The mining claims overlay a mix of private, state and federal land, and have long been an object of desire for mining companies. Newmont Mining Corporation completed a lengthy period of exploration there over 10 years ago, according to DEQ.
“The Copper Cliff area is an older property, and periodically companies do a bit of exploration work there,” McCullough says, recalling his own work in the area back in the late 1970s. “It’s an interesting geological formation, which means companies will continue to be interested in it.”
But Kennecott Utah Copper, isn’t just any mining company. It produces over 300,000 tons of copper per year, and its flagship open-pit copper mine in Bingham, Utah has cranked-out over 17.5 million tons of copper since it’s 1906 inception, making it the biggest, richest copper mine in the world.
The thought of a huge open-pit operation appearing at the headwaters the Blackfoot might scare people, but McCullough says there’s no cause for alarm. Exploration is just one of many phases in the mining process, and does not necessarily indicate a company’s intention to create a mine. It’s only after exploring that they reach a decision to mine. Then begins the arduous process of planning, permit applications, site-inspections, public notice and review with the DEQ.
The Conservation Director for the Clark Fork Coalition, Matt Clifford, says he’s not worried yet. Until permit applications arrive at DEQ, the exploration trend is more or less, “a lot of background noise,” he says.
Kennecott representatives contacted about the company’s exploration activity did not offer any comment.