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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Montana Mining

Air Date: Week of

A look at life in remote northwest Montana mining country. Resident and producer Jane Fritz reports that lack of economic opportunities lead communities there to embrace the promise of new mines, even as they suffer from the failures of old ones.


CURWOOD: In many rural communities in the west, traditional natural resource economies like logging and mining are giving way to service industries that cater to tourists, retirees, and entrepreneurs. And in some places, change hasn't come easy. When a big timber company moves on or a mine closes, there's often little for unemployed workers to do. Producer Jane Fritz spent the last two winters living near the small towns of Troy and Libby in northwestern Montana. Her neighbors, mostly loggers and miners, shared their personal stories of hard luck and health in the boom and bust western economy.

DON DAVIS: Dee killed this one. This was her first buck. Her first, and it's a four-point mulie. And it's a dandy buck. It's bigger than any mulie buck I've ever gotten. It was her first deer.

DEE DAVIS: We had all of our kids with us...

FRITZ: Don Davis and his wife Dee live at the foot of the Cabinet Mountain Range in a comfortable house purchased when times were good. Hunting trophies of deer and elk hang on one living room wall, and dozens of family photos on another. Dee is a stay-at-home mom. Don is looking for work. Like many men born and raised here in Lincoln County, his first job was as a logger. He became a hard rock miner when the multinational mining company ASARCO opened their silver and copper mine in Troy in 1980. Don was one of hundreds of local laborers who took the job hoping for better wages and job security.

DON DAVIS: When the mine started it looked like it was a chance to go to work and work for 15, 20 years, without any problems of shutdowns. And a lot of us had never mined before. The whole romance of mining, it's somewhere in a man's soul, we weren't going to hit it rich but we was making it good.

FRITZ: But the good times didn't last. Rich mineral veins thinned out to a lower quality of ore, and then metal prices plummeted. ASARCO shut down production years earlier than projected. Over 300 miners lost their jobs.

DON DAVIS: It was quite a shocker because we'd had a meeting prior to the shutdown, and they said we're not going to have a shutdown but don't go buy any new homes. And two weeks later the shutdown was announced. It was devastating, too. You think you've got the world by the tail and you come home and you're out of work, it's -- you know, where do I go next? What do I do next?

FRITZ: This wasn't the community's first experience of dashed hopes. During the early 1990's, 700 workers lost their jobs when the Champion sawmill closed. And 150 when W.R. Grace abandoned its vermiculite mine. A few lucky people found other jobs. But most of the displaced workers and their families relocated to other western states, drew unemployment, or went on welfare. These closures take their toll, Dee Davis says, especially on family life.

DEE DAVIS: There's a lot of husbands leaving their wives and their kids here while they'll go and work, and on their days off drive 300, 400 miles to come back home, stay a day or two, then turn around and go back. Because this is a great place to raise your family.

FRITZ: But a lot of families don't survive the busts. Lincoln County has some of the highest alcoholism, domestic violence, and divorce rates in the state. Lately there's been talk of reopening the Troy mine, and ASARCO has proposed a controversial new silver and copper mine in the Rock Creek drainage of the Cabinet Mountain wilderness. Don and Dee Davis would like the Rock Creek mine built.

DON DAVIS: It was so much more beneficial to Troy than any harm that it caused. When the mine was going, and you could go down to the school and look at the type of kids that were going to school, and they were all miners' kids, they were dressed nice. They were well-behaved. Folks were making enough money; everyone was planning on kids going to college. And you can go down there today and see a whole bunch of ragamuffins.

FRITZ: But the Davises also worry about the impacts of another premature mine closure.

DON DAVIS: They start the Rock Creek mine. Everybody gets going wide open and everybody's bought new homes and they're all doing super and the kids are in college, and the price of silver drops to three dollars. And they say, "Sorry, boys, we've got to shut it down." That always hangs there. The bigger corporations any more, all they have to answer to is their stockholders and the bottom line. And that is upsetting.

FRITZ: The allure of extractive industry is that it brings good-paying jobs, boosted tax revenues, and better schools. But after several cycles of boom and bust, people have learned not to expect much.

CARR: If you want to live here, you're going to have to lower your standards as far as what the company once paid you to get by.

FRITZ: Like Don Davis, Dallas Carr worked at the Troy mine and was one of the last to be let go.

CARR: You can eat that when you get home. No, you are before dinner and everything. You can eat your Snickers and your Fruit Roll-ups and your chips. Then you eat your sandwich last; I'm not unpacking, buddy.

FRITZ: Now his wife works and he runs the household. He's in the kitchen finishing lunch with his sons Dane and Dylan.

CARR: I don't want to see the environment go to hell, but we definitely have to have something happen here, or this town is on the downswing.

FRITZ: Without big industry, Dallas might have to settle for a low paying job at the local grocery store.

CARR: I might have to work at Rosauer's as a box boy. I don't know. (Laughs) What do you think of that?

CHILD: I don't really like it.

CARR: Well, if I keep you home and the rest of the kids around here, it's something I've got to do.

FRITZ: Working in a mine is hard on the body. Dallas is recovering from a neck injury he got at the Troy mine. But few people in Lincoln County were prepared for the human health tragedy resulting from the defunct W.R. Grace vermiculite mine. Recent investigations link the mining operation to more than 100 deaths from asbestosis. Hundreds of former employees and their families have the debilitating respiratory disease, as well as some who use the asbestos- contaminated vermiculite in their gardens, or as insulation in their homes.


THOM: That's for Lareks [phonetic spelling]. All right, 120 bucks. All right, thanks a lot.

MAN: You betcha.

FRITZ: Leroy Thom worked 17 years for the Grace mine. He now owns a machine and fabrication shop in Libby. So far, Leroy has been luckier than many of his friends.

THOM: Some of these other people that have it, you know, they have 40, 50 percent of their lung capacity now. In their late 40s and early 50s. I've got one friend that bought a motor home to travel with, and now he can't even travel. People ask, well, go, why don't you go and file a claim against Grace or sue Grace, you know. He says, "I don't need the money. I need the time." He isn't going to have it. He's going to die.

FRITZ: Leroy Thom was the last president of the labor union at the Grace mine. He says he feels betrayed by the company.

THOM: As more and more stuff comes out, it indicates that Grace knew a lot more about the asbestos than they ever let anybody know. It's a shame that it was done for money. There is no amount of money that covers a lie. It's pathetic is what it is, you know?

FRITZ: Has that changed your feelings at all towards mining?

THOM: No, I don't think that it actually has. There's a vigilance now that watches these, because they've done this in the past. They've done it and they got away with it. That will never happen again, because there's too much of society that looks on this stuff. There's too many watchdogs that's constantly going to be there to make sure that they do things right.

FRITZ: His trust in government regulatory agencies, most corporations, and environmental groups give Leroy Thom enough confidence to want the Troy mine reopened, and the bigger Rock Creek mine built.

THOM: From a business standpoint I am very much in favor of it. They're not going to come in just to be a nice guy. They're coming in to make a dollar. You know, it's not a matter of humanity, it's a matter of dollars and cents.

FRITZ: Some loggers and miners are finding other ways to make a living. Ross Stapley of Troy is 42 and has five kids and a grandson to support. He used to work for ASARCO. But now that jobs are scarce, he's been working the land, hunting game, selling firewood, and picking huckleberries. Doctors tell him a congenital spinal disease will land him in a wheelchair if he continues doing any more manual labor.

STAPLEY: I ain't giving up. I'm going to continue to beat myself to death if I have to, because I've got people that need to be taken care of. It's going to cost me in the long run. I mean, I hurt for it. I hurt continuously for it. But it ain't like the pain I've got inside from not being able to give my children what I want to give them.

FRITZ: After some job training, Ross Stapley has started a mobile knife and tool sharpening business. He'd like to see the mines open up.

STAPLEY: It would give me an opportunity to sharpen tools for them. I could take my business and put it to work for ASARCO or for Rock Creek, either one. My business ain't nothing spectacular, but I'd be able to do something for them and still make a halfway decent living, maybe.

FRITZ: Like his father before him, Ross is teaching his young son, Rock, how to live off the land. But he's also encouraging him to learn computers in order to survive the modern world.

STAPLEY: My son told me here the other day when he was driving down the road that he wanted to make a living the way his dad did. And I told him no. Get into computers where you got something you can count on and look forward to in the future. Because it is one hard, hard chunk of life to live.

(Falling rock)

MARTIN: This is rivette formation quartzite. And this is the very rock that the copper and silver ore accrues in.

FRITZ: Like Ross Stapley, Bill Martin of Troy has adapted creatively to Lincoln County's changing economy. For almost 20 years he worked in the timber industry as a tree planter. Now he's a stonemason. He also founded a local conservation group.

MARTIN: As I heard someone say recently, "Well, if you're busted, boom and bust might not be so bad. At least you've got a boom in there." It's sad, and people are scared, they're frightened. You know, it's like an addict coming off of whatever their drug is.

FRITZ: Bill Martin thinks maybe the only way people here will end their dependency on mining and logging is to hit bottom. He says this is what happened in the Butte-Anaconda mining district. Its economy was in decline until it collapsed. But today the area lures tourists off the interstate to its world class golf course built over reclaimed mine tailings.

MARTIN: And that's what needs to happen here. And I don't have an answer, I can't say what's happening. But I can just look at Butte, at least, and a few other places, and say well, they're hardy people. They're going to do something. And it'll be better, if it's not dependent on something that's in decline.

FRITZ: Attracting tourists to isolated Troy and Libby will be more difficult, says fellow conservationist Bob Zimmerman, a third-generation Lincoln County native. He says nearly all the elected officials here are strong supporters of the mining industry, and haven't done much to encourage other types of businesses.

ZIMMERMAN: Without really strong leadership, I don't see things being much different. Maybe a generation will have to pass before, as a community, we can sit down and really work together.

(Man on mike introduces a musical group; the group plays)

FRITZ: Despite the stresses of an unknown future, people here still know how to have fun. At the Troy Hot Club, an old-fashioned family gathering place that serves up trendy espressos and good local music, the young mix with the old and talk about the future.

(Ambient conversation and music)

VOLKEMAN: Mining, be good if a mine came in. If we could take advantage of it and get, like, a new gym and stuff for the school.

FRITZ: Barrett Volkeman is a junior at the Troy High School. He wants the community to create better-paying jobs, as long as environmental quality isn't compromised.

VOLKEMAN: Oh, when ASARCO came in, they gave the school money because they're taking something out that can't be returned. It's gone forever. We have some of the best computers in the area because of it.

(Music performers finish up to applause)

FRITZ: Also enjoying the music and his latte is one of the town's highly-esteemed old-timers, 85-year-old Ford Cripes. Over the years his small wood products ventures employed a lot of locals. He survived the town's rough and rowdy beginnings through to its industrial peaks and sharp declines. I ask him about the belief of the Kootenai Indians, the first peoples here, to plan for seven generations into the future.

CRIPES: Suppose I didn't look as far down the road because I was absorbed with what I can do now, knowing that I had to get it done and that life is going to change. The change is really spectacular. I would say we have no idea what people seven generations down there will want. I don't think we should be speculating on it.

(Local music plays)

FRITZ: But conservationists worry that without planning for the future-- at least a dozen other mining claims are pending in the Cabinet wilderness -- Lincoln County is doomed to repeat the bruising cycle of boom and bust. Still, people here live in one of the most beautiful river valleys in the west, rimmed by mountains that seem to hold them here, beyond the precious metals they contain.

(Local music continues)

FRITZ: For Living on Earth, I'm Jane Fritz.



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