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

The Blackfoot River and the Glory of the West

Air Date: Week of

Montanans have an important decision coming up on McDonald Cyanide and gold mining in Western Montana. Jyl Hoyt reports.


CURWOOD: There are many threats to wilderness beyond logging, including the dirty process of mining for gold. Typically, tiny flecks of gold are sprinkled throughout huge amounts of rock, so to get at the gold some miners spray cyanide on the rocks to dissolve it. Cyanide can be deadly. It is also used in the executioner's gas chamber. And while mining companies say no cyanide will be released into the wilderness, others worry about the consequences of a possible accident. Right now a company wants to use cyanide gold mining in western Montana, in the area south of Glacier National Park. They say they'll protect the environment, but some residents say the cyanide could run off and pollute the Blackfoot River, which was made famous by the book and film A River Runs Through It. Jyl Hoyt has our story.

(A car motor)

SHERN: We're going to slow down here and pull off. Hopefully not too far, so we don't get stuck. It's kind of snowy right now. Maybe not very far at all. Huh, what do you think, Jim?

JIM: No guts, no glory.

SHERN: All right, let's go for it.

(A tone sounds; car doors open and shut)

HOYT: Mike Shern and his colleagues drive across a sheet of ice, climb out of their rig, and defy the below zero weather as they crunch across snow at the McDonald Gold Mine site east of Missoula, and just 18 miles from the Continental Divide. A few miles to the north is the Scapegoat Wilderness. Eight hundred yards to the south is the Blackfoot river.

(Boots crunch on snow)

HOYT: Shern points to 2 mountains that his company plans to move.

SHERN: So those 2 particular hills will come down, and this hill will grow. So actually where we're standing right now will be under some rock when we're all finished. We'll be under a new hill. So you're in the roots of the new hill.

HOYT: Phelps Dodge and its partner plan to use explosives to level the mountains. They'll crush and haul 900 million tons of rock, which they'll sprinkle with cyanide. As cyanide trickles down through the mountain of crushed ore, it dissolves the gold and silver flecks scattered throughout the heap. Shern says the company hopes to find precious metals worth about $1.2 billion.

SHERN: We have every interest in the world to make sure that we don't lose any of the solution, because the solution is where the gold is.

HOYT: But it's the toxic cyanide solution that worries many people. Some fear it might leak into the aquifer and poison the river. To help prevent that, Shern says his company plans to build composite barriers, plastic-lined pools, and monitoring wells.

SHERN: The Blackfoot River's going to be fully protected. The project has no impact on the Blackfoot River at all.

(Water runs)

HOYT: The Blackfoot is one of Montana's famous trout streams. Its crystal waters bordered by Ponderosa pines and lush meadows are a source of state pride. Along with cyanide, Montanans worry about nitrates from miners' explosives and sediment from the proposed mile-wide pit polluting the river.

FARLANE: This mine is really bad for fish because of the potential pollution sources from it.

HOYT: Bruce Farling is with Montana's Trout Unlimited.

FARLING: Number one is they're going to have to pump somewhere in the area of about 15,000 to 17,000 gallons per minute of water out of the deep aquifer around the open pit to keep it dewatered so they can mine it, and it's enriched with high levels of arsenic and zinc. Arsenic's not healthy for people at these levels, and the zinc is not going to be healthy for fish. They have to discharge that water somewhere, and it's either going to go directly or indirectly into the lander's fork in the Blackfoot River.

HOYT: The company says it plans to return the groundwater with its naturally occurring arsenic and zinc back into the aquifers. But state officials acknowledge some contamination could end up in the river.

(A door opens; footfalls)

HOYT: It happens before, says Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center, as he walks up to his second story office in downtown Helena.

JENSEN: One of the most serious pollution events in the Blackfoot River occurred in 1975, when a big tailing dam at the old Mike Horse Mine washed out in a flood, and hundreds of millions of tons of toxic sediments were flushed down into the river system.

HOYT: Fish populations in the Blackfoot River were decimated for miles downstream. Jensen's organization sued, and the company cleaned up its mess. Now, fish are returning to the Blackfoot. Montana's landscape and history are replete with such events. State records show that after a century of mining, at least 6,000 abandoned mine sites remain, many with streams running orange from toxic chemicals. Environmentalist Jim Jensen says recent political changes in Montana could bring a return of these kinds of problems. The Montana legislature turned Republican in the last general election.

JENSEN: In the 1995 session of the legislature Montana went from having the strongest water quality protection in the west to having the weakest, and it was done specifically at the request of the mining industry.

(Clanking sounds of silverware)

HOYT: Phelps Dodge took a leading role in pushing for the changes, which were sponsored by Montana Senator Tom Beck. As he takes a dinner break in Deer Lodge, a small town bordered by a gold mine, Senator Beck says concerns over his legislation are overblown.

BECK: I still want it environmentally sound. And the mining industry agreed to that, but they said we can at least meet this, where the other parameters were so stringent that it was virtually impossible for them to achieve.

HOYT: Conservationists are working now to get an initiative on the ballot to reverse the new water laws and restore tougher standards.

(Creaking hinges)

HOYT: A face stinging wind blows the hinged sign outside Garland's Trading Post in Lincoln. A one-street town just 8 miles west of the proposed McDonald Gold Mine. Store owner Theresa Garland, whose husband is a geologist for the project, says the mine would mean year-round business instead of seasonal customers.

T. GARLAND: Growth that we could hang onto. Something that we knew that we could just live by, other than just to sit here and wait for somebody to drive down the highway and pull into our businesses.

B. GARLAND: If you want to have quality of life, the quality of life that Lincoln can give you, don't expect to get filthy rich here.

HOYT: Garland's 40-year-old sister Becky, who lives behind the store in the same log cabin she was raised in, doubts the mine's economic benefits, and feels it could drive away the hunters, fishers, and hikers she's served for the past 2 decades.

B. GARLAND: That's the constant. That's something that has always been here, and I believe that is stable enough to keep Lincoln intact.

T. GARLAND: That puts us all being still and making service industry wages. We still will wait on people. We'll be waitresses, we'll be in the motels cleaning the rooms. That is just a service-based economy. There's no real money in it for people.

HOYT: Phelps Dodge says it will hire 390 workers if the mine is permitted. Miners would buy $550 million in goods and services from Montanans. And because the mine site is mostly on state land, the company would also support a state university. Benefits of tourism and recreation are less quantifiable, says Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center. But he says, they could be stronger and more stable in the long run.

JENSEN: And as the rest of the world becomes more and more developed and there is less and less of this kind of country available, this place will become more valuable and more people will come here. It's the classic supply and demand economics that are going on.

(People milling)

HOYT: At a Kiwanis Club meeting in Missoula, skeptical members question a Montana state official about the McDonald Mine proposal.

MAN: Isn't there a possibility of having similar magnitude problems out of this mine on the Blackfoot?

OFFICIAL: I guess the potential is always there for those kind of disasters. I would like to think, though, that because of the environmental laws that we have today, there is a much less, much smaller likelihood that that will ever happen.

(A piano plays; people applaud and sing: "Montana, Montana, glory of the west...")

HOYT: Kiwanis Club members close their meeting with a friendly song. But most acknowledge that mining in general and this mine in particular are Montana's most contentious issues. State officials say they'll distribute an environmental impact statement and elicit public comment before making their decision, possibly late next year. But the November statewide election and the Clean Water ballot initiative may effectively make the decision before then.

(Kiwanis club members sing: "... skies are always blue. M-o-n-t-a-n-a, Montana I love you.")

HOYT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt.



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