George's claim 

A reclusive miner was looking for gold. He found the good life.

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"And I said, 'Bullshit! I come into this world with two of them and if I leave, I'm going to have 'em on there!' That was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, to make those fuckers move just a little bit."

Bullet fragments remain in his body, he says; doctors X-rayed him after surgery and said he lit up like a Christmas tree.

Kornec abruptly returns the conversation to the place where he was shot: "There were nuggets there you wouldn't believe. Some of them were over three ounces, and you couldn't drop them into a fucking pop can."

That was 40 or 50 years ago, he says; he's not sure. He says it was also the last time he saw a doctor.

"The only kind of medication I take is an Alka-Seltzer for a sour stomach. Very rarely do I take an aspirin or anything like that."

He attributes his good health to fresh air and clean water.

click to enlarge Spunky is Kornec’s 13-year-old collie, the tamest of the animals who keep him company. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN

The view from above

Kornec's home, sided with weathered, blue corrugated steel, used to be American Smelting & Refining Co.'s office. He thinks it was built in 1939. Years later, after the building was abandoned, Kornec says he laid big timbers under the house, attached it to Lulu, and skidded it up the hill to its current location. (He doesn't just name wildlife: Lulu is Kornec's nickname for his Cat, the big, yellow tractor parked in front of his house.) Now the house is perched right above the Mike Horse tailings pond, among the last remaining structures in a district that once teemed with miners. The old Mike Horse town site is long gone.

ASARCO operated the Mike Horse Mine from about 1945 to 1955. It would eventually lease the property to the Atlantic Richfield Co. in the '60s. ASARCO built a tailings pond buttressed by an earthen dam. In June 1975, at the peak of the spring runoff, the Mike Horse Dam, itself partly constructed of tailings, blew out, washing 100,000 tons of fine-grain tailings laced with silver, gold, zinc, lead, cadmium, iron, copper and arsenic into Beartrap Creek and the upper Blackfoot River, devastating fish and other aquatic life for miles. In 2008, the state and feds announced a $37 million settlement with ASARCO and Atlantic Richfield Co. to remove the Mike Horse Dam and the tailings behind it. The first step is to identify a place to bury the tailings somewhere in the Blackfoot Watershed. That's what Shellie Haaland has been working on. She says the DEQ and Forest Service will release an analysis of all the repository options within a few weeks. A comment period will follow.

Kornec was here that wet spring of '75, and he says "everybody's overblown the whole thing." The entire dam didn't wash away, he says, just a side channel. And he believes the tailings settled in wetlands before they reached far down the Blackfoot. As for the water in the dam being toxic, "that's a bunch of used to swim in there. You wouldn't have believed the size of the fish in there. Gee whiz."

In fact, Kornec says, ASARCO should have been praised for building the dam, because back then, most other mining companies dumped mine waste directly into creeks. He believes the tailings should be entombed right where they are. Millions shouldn't be spent trying to truck them somewhere else.

click to enlarge The reclusive Kornec seldom leaves his property. “I’m content up here in my private little world,” he says. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • The reclusive Kornec seldom leaves his property. “I’m content up here in my private little world,” he says.

That's just one of Kornec's critiques of the Mike Horse reclamation. He thinks the state ought to hire more mining engineers. He also says it should run the tailings through a mill, as he believes the remaining metals would more than pay for the project. He pans the wide road the Forest Service recently built to access the dam, calling it "Amber's thoroughfare," after Amber Kamps, the Lincoln district ranger.

"All they need is some blacktop and some lines on that sucker."

"I told 'em," he says of the reclamation project, "'As long as you keep it on that side of that gate, that's your world down there. This over here, this is my world.'"

Despite Kornec's carping, Haaland says his freely shared knowledge of the area has proven invaluable. "There's an adit that runs underneath the Blackfoot River," she says, "and we never would have picked it up had George not told us about it—things like that. He's just been great."

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