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Cyanide's Bitter End in Mining for Gold

After a century of use, Montana votes to ban the deadly chemical. Backers of the new law now hope for support in Congress for wider curbs, but the industry is fighting back.

November 17, 1998|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZORTMAN, Mont. — It was an old alchemist's trick, dripping deadly cyanide onto a piece of rock to burn out its hidden stores of gold. Two decades ago, Pegasus Gold Inc. turned ancient art into modern riches, building a network of cyanide mines in the Little Rocky Mountains and transforming 38,000 tons a day of some of the lowest-grade ore in the world into Montana's biggest gold mine.

After hauling 46 tons of gold out of the barren hills, Pegasus Gold Inc. earlier this year filed for bankruptcy and began shutdown operations at its landmark Zortman-Landusky Mine. But its legacy remains.

The town of Zortman had to turn to a new municipal water source after the old one was polluted with 50,000 gallons of cyanide. Nearby Ruby Gulch was contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, chromium and copper. And two Indian tribes are demanding studies to investigate lead poisoning of their children that they suspect comes from acid mine drainage that leaked out of the hill they once called "Spirit Mountain."

Earlier this month, Montana voters struck back. In a ballot initiative unprecedented in a state literally built on mining, voters approved a ban on new cyanide heap-leach mining, a century-old technology that entered the modern era at mines like Zortman-Landusky and became the most important new tool for extracting gold and silver out of low-grade ore.

The initiative, immediately challenged in court by the industry, will halt a huge new gold mine contemplated on the banks of the fabled Blackfoot River and at least one other gold mine nearing operation at Dillon. Industry officials say it could block exploration and start-up activities at 15 other mines and cost the state at least $214 million a year in taxes and royalties.

The election was followed closely throughout the mining industry, which sees Montana as the forerunner in what is likely to be an attempt throughout the West to do away with cyanide gold mining. Environmentalists hope the vote will strengthen support in Congress to reform the 1872 law on hard rock mining that allows virtually anyone to stake a mining claim on public land, pay no royalties for the minerals extracted and assume little or no responsibility for reclamation.

The initiative stands as the most significant challenge to mining in a state that was once a virtual company town of the Anaconda Copper Co., a state whose flag carries the slogan "ora y plata," or "gold and silver." Mining is a $2.2-billion industry that directly employs about 2,100 workers in gold and silver (about half the mining jobs in the state) and indirectly provides employment for as many as 27,000. Mineral-rich counties derive up to a third of their tax revenues from mining royalties and taxes.

"I think there's a concerted effort to drive mining out of the state, and I think it's one of the stupidest things you could do," said Jill Anderson of the Montana Mining Assn., which has filed two legal challenges to Initiative 137. "Agriculture is hurting badly. Our timber, when we can cut it, we can't sell it for anything. I'm just not sure where Montanans are going to have jobs."

A History of Spills and Polluted Rivers

Proponents of the initiative, which won 53% of the vote, say the mining industry dug its own grave. Its record, they say, is a story of dug-up hillsides, leaks and spills, polluted rivers and poisoned ground water. Since 1982, Montana mines have released 135 million gallons of cyanide, according to environmentalists.

"I've been all over the country looking at these mines. And every place I've been, from South Carolina to California and Nevada, every single one has leaked," said Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a backer of the initiative. "The conventional wisdom is that in the West, the mining industry is absolute. I-137 shows that, if people are actually given an independent outlet for their voice, it's time for reform."

Those challenging the initiative, are focusing on a 1996 ballot measure that prevented corporate contributions to initiative campaigns. The result was that the mining industry could not be heard on the mining measure until just two weeks before the election, when a federal judge declared the earlier measure unconstitutional.

"We believe the initiative will be overturned on the basis of the fact that we, the mining community, had no opportunity to effectively campaign against it until just a few days prior to the vote. Our hands were tied," said Canyon Resources President Richard H. De Voto.

Jensen said proponents, expecting a challenge, did not begin their own TV campaign until the judge had ruled. Once unleashed, the mining industry struck with full force, he said, spending $2.5 million to the proponents' $300,000. Estimates are that 95% of all Montanans heard the industry's anti-initiative message not once but at least 25 times.

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