Gold fever reaches Upper Rock Creek

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"[Environmentalists] are right: make sure it's done right," he says after we escape the loud thrum of the drill. "But we're not cleaning up the world's environment by shutting down mines in Montana and shipping them to China where they don't give a shit. I look at Flathead Lake and I understand there's mercury that blows over from the coal-fired plants in China, because they have no controls on it, so Flathead Lake is getting polluted with mercury from overseas. If we're the best at doing things environmentally, then we should encourage the development in our own country."

After driving more than a half-mile underground, we turn around and head for daylight. When we emerge, two men stand in front of the trailers, legs wide, hands in pockets, eagerly awaiting Bardswich and Whitely's return. They're looking for work.

'These evil miners'

Drumlummon is something of an anomaly. Its revival probably doesn't portend a return to Montana's gold mining heyday, although Robin McCulloch wishes it did. The mining engineer with the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, in Butte, laments that Montana's metal mining infrastructure is nearly gone, leaving a vacuum in which sky-high gold prices reap little reward.

click to enlarge Dave Whiteley, the Drumlummon Mine’s president and superintendent, says the mine plans to hire additional experienced miners in the coming months. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Dave Whiteley, the Drumlummon Mine’s president and superintendent, says the mine plans to hire additional experienced miners in the coming months.

"Everybody says, 'Those evil miners, we need to get them under control,'" McCulloch says. "I hate to tell them, but they need to go out and put flowers on their graves. They're dead. There's nobody left...The major mines over the last 75 to 100 years no longer exist, and what we have left are small to medium-sized companies, mostly homegrown, that are depending on financing through the world market...We're competing for those exploration dollars with Australia and Russia and India and everybody else. It's not state-by-state. We have to compete on an international basis—and it's tough."

McCulloch, echoing Bardswich, says outside investors cringe at the thought of doing business in Montana. "Our reputation at this point for an investment dollar, we're not in the toilet, but we're close, on an international basis. Part of it isn't that the law is so severe, but the permitting cycles and the litigation is so severe as to not allow anybody to want to invest in Montana."

He points to the Fraser Institute's annual global mining survey. The most recent results, published in March, show that 83 percent of mining companies surveyed said Montana's environmental regulations are a deterrent to investment. Montana ranks eighth on Fraser's list of the 15 worst mining districts in the world for 2011.

Mining exploration projects have dropped from about 140 in 1991 to around 10 today, according to data from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology. The number of gold mining operations of all sizes dropped from 23 in 1989 to five in 2000, and has rebounded to seven today—"and that includes everything right down to the little guy shuffling and dancing with a backhoe," McCulloch says.

click to enlarge A truck passes through the Drumlummon Mine’s Gunsinger Decline. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

McCulloch blames Montana's flagging mining industry partly on citizen Initiative 137 that, in 1998, banned cyanide heap-leach mining. "It wasn't the cyanide ban itself," he says, "but it harbored an attitude toward business."

The Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) led that effort, in response to what it said was the "abysmal track record of open pit cyanide leach mining in Montana, as exemplified by cleanup fiascos at the Golden Sunlight, Zortman-Landusky, and Kendall mines and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality's failure to adequately regulate such mines as required by state law."

Canyon Resources, the company that wanted to open a cyanide heap-leach gold mine in the Upper Blackfoot Valley, attempted to repeal the ban with its own initiative, but voters rejected it in 2004. Canyon also lost a protracted court battle. The 2011 Montana Legislature approved a bill to effectively reverse the ban, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer has promised to veto it.

"The infrastructure that went away was the cyanide-based infrastructure, and it's a good thing for Montana that it went away," says MEIC director Jim Jensen. Golden Sunlight is the only mine left in Montana that uses it, he says, "and one day it will go away, too."

Jensen says he hopes Schweitzer will also veto Senate Bill 312, sponsored by Chas Vincent, R-Libby, which eases the permitting process for mining operations and would apply to the Basin Gulch Mine. The bill stems from frustration over the years-long regulatory approval processes for the proposed Montanore and Rock Creek mines southwest of Libby, both of which would tunnel beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness to access massive silver and copper deposits.

The shuttered Zortman-Landusky Mine, south of the Fort Belknap Reservation in north-central Montana, stands out as perhaps the most environmentally harmful gold and silver mine in the history of the state. In 1982, three years after it opened, about 50,000 gallons of cyanide spilled, poisoning the community of Zortman's water supply. There were several other spills between then and 1997, when the mine closed. A year later, the company filed for bankruptcy, leaving the state with the liability. The total cleanup tab through 2010 amounts to $55.9 million, according to the DEQ. The mine will require water treatment in perpetuity.

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