Traveling east from Missoula, Montana's Route 200 traces the meanderings of the Big Blackfoot River, through conifer-hemmed valleys and emerald meadows. Here fishermen in chest waders stand among the rocks in water that dances green and sparkling; their long fly rods like magic wands wave to and fro, suspending the fly, then guiding it gently upon a pool where a big brown or a cutthroat may strike. This is the world-class trout fishery made famous by Norman Maclean in his evocative memoir A River Runs Through It, and by the Robert Redford film, of the same name.
The road soon arrives in Lincoln, Mont., a forest and river community of 1,500 people that few had heard of until Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber suspect, was arrested here last spring. Now that the last of the HOME OF THE UNABOMBER T-shirts have been sold and most of the reporters have gone away, the talk of the town has turned to another issue that has raised tensions in this close-knit community, even within some families: Should a copper mining company from Arizona be permitted to build one of the largest open-pit, cyanide heap-leach gold mines in the world at the headwaters of the Blackfoot River? Supporters of the project say the town needs the jobs—390 of them, paying an average of $36,000 a year, for 12 to 14 years. Detractors insist that the project will be a disaster both economically and environmentally. As one resident who opposes the project said while testifying at a packed public hearing last year: "The company will get the tenderloins, and we'll get the gut pile."
Teresa Garland, who has lived in Lincoln all of her 43 years, prominently displays gold jewelry in the counter of the general store that her parents, Cecil and Barbara, established in the 1950s. Garland is married to a geologist who is working on the project, and she is convinced the proposed mine will be safe, even though other projects like it have destroyed rivers. "I do think we can have it all, that they will get it right," she says. "I don't think there's any turning back on this project, anyway. Men don't walk away from mountains of gold."
Garland says, however, that holidays with her environmentalist father and younger sister can be interesting, if not tense. "This mine is a showpiece for greed," says Becky Garland, 40. She's curled up on a sofa in the simple wood-frame home her father built behind the store. "Messing with 130 miles of river that sustains 5,000 people or more for a minuscule amount of gold. I've been in retail my entire life, and I know when I'm being sold a bill of goods."
Actually, the river ultimately affects far more than 5,000 people. The Blackfoot is part of the headwaters of the Columbia River Basin, which drain most of the Pacific Northwest. This year, because of the proposed mine, American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group, put the Blackfoot on its list of America's most threatened rivers. Many tributaries of the Blackfoot are considered as core areas that are critical habitat for the recovery of native bull trout, a threatened species and the focus of a regionwide recovery effort. Like the spotted owl, the bull trout is an "indicator" species—its condition is a key indicator of the condition of an ecosystem. Bull trout can live only in clean, clear and cold mountain waters, and core-area streams that contain bull trout border two sides of the proposed mine site.
Eight miles east of Lincoln, Route 200 runs smack into a mining giant's vision of prosperity. "Here's where the rock pile will be," says Mike Schern, project manager for the Seven-Up Pete Joint Venture (SPJV), the business partnership between the Phelps Dodge Corp. and Canyon Resources Corp. that has applied to the state of Montana and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to build and operate the mine, also known as the McDonald Gold Project. His broad gesture takes in an expanse of summer-blanched bunchgrass on an open plain, where a 600-foot-high hill of waste rock will force Route 200 to be relocated if Phelps Dodge, a $4.2 billion multinational mining concern, sees its vision fulfilled.
It's a vision of overwhelming magnitude: According to the project application filed by SPJV, north and east of the rock pile, where now there are two pine-dotted buttes, 645 million tons of stone would be blasted out of the bedrock, leaving a mile-wide, 1,200-foot-deep pit that would penetrate 675 feet below the water table. Water would be discharged by pumps surrounding the pit at a maximum rate of 5,000 gallons per minute. The ore would be crushed and/or carried by heavy machinery to a 750-acre area northeast of the mine, where the trees and grass would be stripped away. The top soil would be removed and replaced with two layers of clay, on top of which a polyethylene liner would be placed. On top of that would be a layer of crushed rock, then the ore, in 20-foot-deep layers.
A solution of sodium cyanide would be applied over each layer to dissolve the gold; the "pregnant" solution of cyanide and gold would trickle into 50 acres of holding ponds, right next to the relocated highway. The view of the cyanide ponds from the rerouted highway would be shielded by berms between 20 and 30 feet high. In all, according to Schern, 2,600 acres of the 5,400-acre mine site could be directly affected.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the landscape would be rearranged by earth-moving, pumping, crushing and leaching. Each year the project would use 27 million pounds of ammonium nitrate for blasting and 9.5 million pounds of cyanide until 205 million tons of ore have been processed and as much as 3.7 million ounces of gold have been recovered from the volcanic rock where the ore has lain for 40 million years. At a projected market value of $375 per ounce of gold, the Phoenix-based Phelps Dodge and the Golden, Colo.-based Canyon Resources could gross $1.4 billion from the McDonald Gold Project.
As recently as 20 years ago, no mining company would have considered developing this site. That was before the advent of cyanide heap-leach technology, jointly developed in the 1970s by private U.S. industry and the now defunct U.S. Bureau of Mines, and first used in arid environments. The process, which makes it profitable to extract as little as one ounce of gold from as many as 100 tons of low-grade ore, has elevated the U.S. from a modest position to that of the second-largest gold producer in the world, after South Africa. Montana and other U.S. states are now experiencing a hard-rock mining boom, which some have called another Gold Rush.