Despite years of heap-leach mining in the area, no one in Zortman is concerned about the situation on the mountains that loom over the town. Their water is fine.
“Our wells are all out on the Ruby Gulch, ” Clayton Wallace, owner of the Miner’s Club Bar and Cafe in Zortman, said. “I never have been worried about it. The water samples say we’re 1 percent purer than Lewistown and Lewistown is supposed to have the purest water in the state. ”
In fact, Wallace thinks there is plenty of opportunity to start up the Zortman Landusky mine again, if the environmentalists and reservation officials didn’t get in the way.
“In the meeting we had here in the last spring, they said the study shows there’s still $30 billion left back there and that’s just here, just this small area compared to what’s involved. All over the Little Rockies, it’s all been core drilled and sampled. They know where it is, ” Wallace said.
“There’s so many things they could do. They don’t even need to use arsenic or cyanide to leach gold. But there’s so many bad feelings on the reservation, I don’t think it’ll fly. And the environmentalists, regardless of where you are, they’re against it. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, if you’re lumbering or you’re mining, anything that’s productive. They’re even against farming. ”
The fight against cyanide-related mining, like that at Zortman Landusky, made major headway in 1998. Around that time the mining company Pegasus Gold declared bankruptcy, and cyanide open pit mining was made illegal by a ballot initiative. Wayne Jepson from the Department of Environmental Quality said he thought the public seeing the situation developing at Zortman Landusky played a major role. Ironically, had Pegasus Gold just kept going they would have been grandfathered in to continue operation past the ban.
Two mines did get grandfathered in, and the only one that is still active is Golden Sunlight in Jefferson County.
In an effort to help a business in his own district, State Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, sponsored Senate Bill 306, which would have allowed other mining companies to bring ore to facilities that were still processing it with cyanide, the only one in existence being in his backyard.
The bill passed both houses after fierce debate but was eventually vetoed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer during his now famous capitol-steps branding veto, but not before an impassioned speech about preventing the poisoning of Montana water.
“It seems to me that the opposition is basically opposed to mining, but basically pretending to be opposed to cyanide because it’s a more emotional issue, ” Murphy said. “I was a little surprised that the governor vetoed it because it’s just a way to possibly open up more good-paying mining jobs without environmental risk. ”
A few of the ladies of Zortman, finishing lunch at the Miner’s Club, would agree with Murphy. Zortman Postmaster Donna McIntosh said she believes that environmentalists act like anyone who wants to mine also wants polluted water and air.
“The people who live here love Montana, ” McIntosh said.
Ward Van Wichen, Malta hospital administrator, may not have heard of health effects of the former mine, but living in the area while the mine was going and then returning after it shut down, he said he had definitely seen the economic effects, with fewer families in the area to either use the hospitals services or staff the facility to provide those services.
Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, whose district includes Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, vehemently opposed the bill. By his estimation, the people of Montana had already said they didn’t want to encourage cyanide-related mining in 1998, and the issue should be settled.
The governor was of a similar mind following a visit to the mine earlier this year.
“The citizens of Montana were asked twice by initiative whether they thought it was appropriate to put hundreds of tons of cyanide on top of a mountain and leach it through a pile with the expectation and hope that that cyanide wouldn’t end up in the water system, ” Schweitzer said. “And twice the people of Montana voted no. In fact the second time they voted no, the gold mining companies outspent the opposition five to one to try to convince Montana ‘Oh it’s all right. A little cyanide in your water isn’t so bad. ’ But the citizens of Montana rejected it.
“So I don’t think a Legislature and a governor in a 90-day session ought to say, ‘We know better than the people of Montana. ’ One thing I know for sure is the people of Montana usually know best. This is the land of common sense. You should listen to the people of Montana. They usually get it right. ”
Havre’s representatives, Wendy Warburton and Kris Hansen, both voted for the bill because they thought it would be a way to possibly create some jobs, with minimal environmental risk.
“I did get a few calls and emails from constituents that were concerned that we were repealing the ban but with the price of gold being so extraordinarily high right now, and with Montana having so much of it in the ground, I thought that bill was a reasonable solution, ” Hansen said. “It wouldn’t allow any more heap pits or leach vats anywhere in the state and to me that was the intent of the voters. ”
Warburton expressed a similar sentiment in a recent email about the bill.
“Montana has learned from the mistakes of the past. Today, Montana mines have to go through extensive permitting and monitoring by the state while they are in operation, and reclamation when they close, ” Warburton said. “Simply passing a bill to allow them to haul their ore by truck to be processed in another location with international caliber safety standards would not harm the environment, but it would create great-paying jobs for Montanans and bolster our economy. ”
As the son of a miner from the western part of Montana, Malta-based Bureau of Land Management Field Manager Rich Adams said he sees both sides of the debate, through the jobs created and Montanans supported by mining to wanting to avoid situations like Zortman Landusky or the Berkeley Pit, former copper mine and current superfund site in Butte, becoming “a big old toxic soup that today’s generation is dealing with, that yesterday’s generation reaped the benefits of. ”
“That’s what put me through school, put clothes on my back, ” Adams said. “So I’m literally stuck in the middle of that dichotomy. The law says we can develop it but how can we develop it and not leave a negative legacy for our grandkids or our great-grandkids down the road. ”
This is an addition to the Dec. 29 story “Fool’s Gold”, which explained the history of the mountain and the mine.
If these stories are too long for you, a shorter video summary of the situation will be available next week.