Montana has had mining booms before—as well as busts. The state was settled in the wake of a metal mining boom in the 1860s, and for decades the industry was an underpinning of the state's economy. It's not coincidental that the Treasure State's motto is Oro y Plata (Gold and Silver). Though big-time mining is mostly finished in Montana, the state has the biggest SuperFund cleanup sites in the nation. And while mining now accounts for less than 1% of all personal income in Montana, the old mining culture and its politics still exert an influence. Last year the state legislature weakened some of its water-quality laws, which helped make compliance easier for mining companies. But if history has taught Montanans anything about mining, it is that one man's prosperity can be another's poverty.
This mine promises to bring 390 jobs to the area and pay out $8 million annually in local, state and federal taxes. An additional $5 million a year will be earmarked for the state university system, because part of the mine will be on land owned by the state. Even with the millions more that the mining operation promises to spend locally, many Montanans think it is a bad deal, both economically and environmentally. From an economic view, the vast majority of jobs, as often happens in such operations, would go to the itinerant miners who follow the booms and do not become long-term members of local communities. Based on its own assessment of the local work force, SPJV says it is likely to hire only 40 people from Lincoln. But that will be offset by other jobs that will be lost in hunting, fishing and boating, say local outfitters and guides, once word about the mine gets out.
That's because, say critics, the mine will discourage people from coming to the Blackfoot Valley for its natural amenities, which the detractors fear will be destroyed. Their concerns include the possibility of cyanide leaks and spills caused by equipment failures, heavy rains or snows. Residents fear that the Blackfoot could be drained dry if groundwater flow is reversed around the mining pit. Toxic heavy metals such as arsenic and lead could leach into the alluvial aquifer that underlies the permit site, poisoning the food chain that feeds the wildlife on and in the river. And sulfuric acid rock drainage from the waste rock pile could destroy the fishery.
Schern and his team of hydrologists, geologists and engineers say such scenarios do not apply to this site because SPJV will use state-of-the-art technology. According to Schern: The ponds have been designed to withstand four times the water that would accumulate in a 100-year flood; the site will be carefully monitored for equipment failures; the technology will separate the river flow system from the mining operations to prevent any impact on the river; those heavy metals that aren't naturally oxidized will be oxidized by the pumping action and rendered inert; and, as a result, there will be no threat of acid rock drainage.
When asked where this technology has been used previously on such a large scale and such a sensitive site without causing harm, Schern says, "It's been used all over the world. This isn't new technology."
Taking into account that each mining project is site specific and comparisons are inexact, it's useful to look at places where this and similar technology has, in fact, been used. Cyanide heap leaching was used for about six years, from 1986 to '92, at the Summitville mine, near Del Norte, Colo., on the Alamosa River. That operation, which was smaller than the proposed Lincoln project, closed down in 1992, and the abandoned mine is now a SuperFund site that will cost the U.S. an estimated $150 million to clean up. Toxic metals from the mine had spread downstream, threatening 50,000 acres of irrigated farmland. The Summitville mine began leaking cyanide during its very first month of operation. Acid rock drainage and heavy metals leached from the waste rock piles. Galactic Resources Inc., which owned the mine, declared bankruptcy in '92 and walked away from the devastation.
Cyanide is still being used at the Canadian-managed Omai Gold Mine in Guyana, South America. There, breaches in a waste-pond dam spilled four billion liters of cyanide solution, most of it into the Essequibo River, the country's major waterway. There were major fish kills in the river, and fisheries were shut down for weeks. According to the U.S. EPA, it's unclear whether this mine was built to U.S. standards.
And, in the Little Rocky Mountains of north-central Montana, metal-laden waste water was dumped into tributaries of the Missouri and Milk rivers by the Zortman-Landusky Gold Project, a cyanide heap-leach mine smaller than the McDonald Project. Pegasus Gold, which owned the Zortman-Landusky mine, denied the violations, but last July the company agreed to pay $37.2 million in penalties, fines and cleanup costs to settle a legal battle with four groups: two Fort Belknap tribes, local Native American activists, the U.S. EPA and the state of Montana. The groups had joined to sue the company for causing severe water contamination.
Theoretically these mines could, as Schern asserts, be operated safely. The technology exists. But so much depends on the site: Cyanide technology was developed in and for the deserts of Nevada and California, where most of the U.S. gold deposits lie. The quality of a mine's engineering and management, and the state's vigilance in monitoring the site and enforcing its mining codes, also make a difference.
The McDonald Project will be Phelps Dodge's first U.S. gold mine (the company has mined for gold in Chile and Mexico). But the firm has a long record in copper mining in the U.S. In 1992 the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, gave Phelps Dodge a D-in reclamation, a C-for compliance and management practices and a D in community relations. These grades appeared in the Mining Report Card, a publication of the center's Mining Accountability Project. The report, which is based on state and federal environmental records, local reporting, business and academic reviews and on interviews, noted that there have been "accidents at virtually all [Phelps Dodge] operations" and that the company has a "weak record of cooperation with regulatory agencies after the accidents have occurred." As far as reclamation, the report states, "The company's southwestern operations fail even the most minimal standards of reclamation."