Water quality has won out over aesthetics in a government decision on reclamation requirements for a gold mine near Whitehall, but an environmentalist said the plan violates a 2002 court order. Under a decision released Friday, state and federal agency representatives said the best reclamation plan for the Golden Sunlight Mine involves covering and revegetating a pile of acidic waste rock. It also calls for installing an underground sump in the bottom of the mine pit to pump water into an existing treatment plant, keeping it out of the nearby Jefferson River. The decision isn’t final until after a 30-day comment period. The plan would cost $1.26 million, a fraction of the $55 million cost of the original plan, which was to backfill the pit with 47 million cubic yards of acidic waste rock that has been pulled from the pit. Officials with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Bureau of Land Management say this is the only alternative that will provide adequate assurance that the river won’t eventually be polluted by tainted water migrating underground from the mine pit. “After I inherited this project I realized it was a choice between an emphasis on aesthetics or an emphasis on water quality,” said DEQ Director Richard Opper. “The science told us that backfilling the pit would degrade surface and ground water quality. I made the decision to go with the alternative that better protected the state’s water resources.” But Jeff Barber, reclamation program director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the decision contradicts an order by District Judge Thomas Honzel, who in 2002 told the state to “immediately” implement its 1998 reclamation plan. The DEQ and BLM decided they first had to put together a supplement to the original Environmental Impact Statement. “They have spent a decadeplus now trying to figure out how not to reclaim that mine, whether it means changing statutes or submitting a new reclamation plan,” Barber said Friday. “The bottom line is the state and Golden Sunlight are in direct violation of a court order.” Tim Dimock, the mine’s general manager, said he hadn’t read the entire document released Friday by the DEQ and BLM, but he’s pleased they’ve chosen the sump pump alternative. “We really believe that’s the best option to prevent any (acid mine runoff) from going into the groundwater from the pit walls,” Dimock said. “We are very happy with the decision. We think it’s the best environmental choice.” The reclamation work would begin when the mine closes. That’s scheduled to happen during the third quarter of 2008, but high gold prices may extend the mine’s life.