When asked to comment on the Center's report card, Phelps Dodge responded, "While Phelps Dodge Corp. welcomes public feedback regarding the responsible operation of our facilities, the Mineral Policy Center's report card does not qualify because it is not an objective evaluation of the company's environmental and community relations record. It uses flawed methodology and contains numerous factual inaccuracies and omissions. In addition, the report, which was issued in 1992, failed then and still fails to reflect the continuing advances in environmental protection and reclamation being made by Phelps Dodge Corp. The company works diligently with regulators and the public to anticipate, prevent and resolve problems, and has a solid record of meeting stringent environmental regulations."
A gold mine on the Blackfoot is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Before SPJV can receive its permit, it must jump through some hoops. Last March the Montana Department of Environmental Quality declared the mine's application complete. That started the countdown for the preparation of a draft of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), to be written by the state and the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the waters involved, as spelled out in the Clean Water Act. It is rare for Montana to deny a permit after an application is deemed complete—it has happened only twice. By state law, a permit can be denied only if the project degrades water and air quality, and if so, only if those negative effects cannot be mitigated. In addition, the area must be reclaimed in accord with the state's Metal Mines Reclamation Act. What is considered "reclaimed," however, lies in the eye of the beholder and may be left for a court to decide.
"Basically, the statutes are designed to permit mines, not deny them," says Jim Robinson, EIS coordinator at the Montana DEQ. "It's like when a developer wants to put in a subdivision in your neighborhood; if he follows the zoning regulations, he gets his permit."
Those who oppose the mine have not given up: The Clark Fork Coalition, a regional watersheds watchdog, has sued the DEQ for having declared the permit application complete even though a state fisheries biologist had written a letter to the DEQ's director charging that the application was missing critical data on fisheries and hydrology. Though no decision has yet been made, the company says, a waste-water initiative that is on the November ballot could spell the end of Phelps Dodge's investment in the project, which thus far is in excess of $40 million.
Initiative 122, placed on the ballot after a grass-roots petition drive, would forbid new metal mines from discharging any waste water into public waters unless they met state water-quality standards. In theory, SPJV could ask the state to declare the entire 5,400-acre project site a "mixing zone," thereby exempting it from water-quality standards. 1-122 would do away with mixing zones, and Phelps Dodge says that if the initiative passes, it could make mining "unfeasible," even though the company insists that the water it discharges will be pure enough to sell as drinking water. The petition attracted almost twice the number of signatures required for placement on the ballot. But SPJV has contributed to an aggressive campaign to defeat the initiative, and on Sept. 18, Montana governor Marc Racicot came out against 1-122, saying the benefits would be "neglible to illusory."
Hurdles like these, says Pat Ryan, a geological engineer and retired Phelps Dodge vice president, could hurt the mining industry, which is already suffering under a rigorous permitting process, and will discourage the industry from conducting domestic exploration. "It's becoming impossible to develop a mine because of unreasonable environmental demands," Ryan says. "We're going to destroy our hard-rock mining industry—the companies will go overseas."
But Becky Garland says pure water is a more valuable natural resource than the gold from the Seven-Up Pete mine. "We'll be married to the problems up there for the rest of our lives, and the taxes of every U.S. citizen will have to pay for what they leave behind," she says. "It's important for us to say, 'Today is the day we'll see no more gold mined.' "