Montanans Find Their Scenery More Precious Than Copper or Gold

Environmentalists, the recreation industry, and lovers of the state’s great outdoors push back against new mine developments threatening their waters.

The Smith River, Montana, from just below the confluence with Tenderfoot Creek


 Photographs by Janie Osborne

A 1,780-foot-deep former copper pit in Butte, Montana, bills itself as the state’s “toxic tourist trap.” Visitors can pay $2 to stand on a viewing platform and look down into waters swirling with sulfuric acid, arsenic, and other heavy metals. It’s a poison soup with roughly the same pH as cola, but it’s nowhere as palatable.

You don’t have to look too far back to learn about the sordid history of the Berkeley Pit. In 2016 as many as 4,000 snow geese died after landing on and drinking the toxic water. It was the second such occurrence at what is now the largest Superfund site in the nation. A water treatment system was recently installed to process the pit water, and it will run for the foreseeable future, says David Brooks of the watershed conservation organization Montana Trout Unlimited­.

The toxic legacy of hard-rock mines like this is present across the so-called Treasure State. Mining decimated the nearby Clark Fork River’s natural fish population, and high concentrations of mercury have been found in local osprey. Many other Montana sites where gold, copper, and silver were once extracted now qualify for Superfund status. Moreover, the issue is a national one: A recent study of the operating records of U.S. gold mines found that 74 percent of them contaminated surface and/or groundwater (including drinking water) with cyanide, arsenic, nitrates, or other hazardous materials.

Visitors taking photos of the contaminated pit from the Berkeley Pit Visitors Center

That statistic is one of the reasons why Montanans are now rallying for stiffer regulation of extractive industries as the state considers new mine developments. A small Canadian company, Tintina Resources, has partnered with Australian mining firm Sandfire Resources on a proposal to build the Black Butte Copper Mine at the headwaters of the 59-mile Smith River. The decision on whether to permit the mine rests with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The Smith is a popular destination renowned for its scenery and recreational trout fishing—so prized, in fact, that it’s Montana’s only river requiring a permit, issued by lottery, for a five-day float trip. (In recent years, chances of winning the lottery have been about 1 in 8.)

“People come from all over the world to float, fish, and camp along the Smith,” says Matt Skoglund, who directs NRDC’s Northern Rockies office in Bozeman—and scored a permit a handful of years ago and floated the famed river with his wife. “It’s a really unique river, incredibly beautiful, peaceful and wild.” He says that places like the Smith help give Montana its identity. That being the case, he asks, “Why would we take risks with the golden goose? These hard-rock mines, they all fail at some point, and all leak at some point.”

The Movement for Change

In addition to their intrinsic natural value, places like the Smith River are economic powerhouses for the tourism industry. The river creates more than $10 million in economic activity for Montana, according to Save Our Smith, an advocacy group comprising local business owners and environmental organizations. And overall, outdoor recreation is Montana’s largest economic sector, worth $7.1 billion in consumer spending annually and providing 71,000 direct jobs.

A boat making its way down the Smith River to a nearby campsite

In response to the threat from the copper mine, local business owners and conservation groups recently banded together to propose an initiative for the November 2018 ballot requiring the Montana DEQ to address the issue. The ballot language requests that the state deny a permit for any new hard-rock mines unless the reclamation plan “provides clear and convincing evidence that the mine will not require perpetual treatment of water polluted by acid mine drainage or other contaminants.”

YES on I-186 quickly gathered the 25,000 signatures necessary to go before voters. Similar laws exist in Maine, New Mexico, and Michigan, points out Bonnie Gestring, the Northwest program director at Earthworks, a group focused on mitigating mineral and energy development impacts while promoting sustainable solutions.

I-186 does not apply to coal, talc, or other categories. “It’s aimed at the riskiest of large-scale hard-rock mines, which leave behind permanent pollution,” says Brooks.

A Messy History

When American pioneers searched for gold, they used pickaxes and pans. The tools had a much smaller environmental impact compared with the tech used today, yet rules governing mining in national forests and other lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management have not evolved accordingly. Primarily, the industry still follows guidelines set up by the General Mining Act of 1872—one intended to encourage Americans to move West, and which therefore prioritized handouts to people and corporations willing to make the journey. (The law also resulted in thousands of miners coming to temporarily seek their fortune and then leave; the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates there are 161,000 abandoned mine sites in western states today.) At present, companies can still mine minerals from federal lands without paying rent or royalties. The price for buying what the government calls “an exclusive patented mineral claim” on public lands—which transfers ownership of the land into private hands—is just $5 per acre.

In addition to these outdated incentives for setting up shop, mining companies have continued to operate under lax guidelines with regard to remediating the impacts of their business when they leave. While companies must set aside money in bonds to insure against potential cleanup costs, the process for doing so is guided by an administrative hodgepodge of state and federal requirements shot through with loopholes. To address this issue, environmental groups fought an eight-year legal battle against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that resulted in a 2016 settlement ordering the agency to ensure that mining companies—not taxpayers—were held financially accountable for the cleanup of their operations. But those rules were abandoned under the Trump administration (which sent environmental groups back to court to challenge this reversal).

Many Montana lawmakers and local industry groups argue that the state’s mining regulations are more stringent than those of neighboring states. But Brooks points out that historically the bonds required of mining companies have been insufficient to fund cleanup efforts and that the companies often disappear into bankruptcy. He notes that Montana’s DEQ did revoke a permit for a mine $15 million behind in bond payments—following “years of disuse and dangerous, costly decay of the site.” But in general, he adds, compared with the costs to the environment, the price that mining companies pay for the right to operate is minor. “Do the math: What amount of bond can cover permanent water treatment when the expense goes on forever?” Brooks asks.

The Burden of Cleanup

The job of remediating abandoned hard-rock mines falls largely to federal and state government agencies, although they may try to recover costs through litigation. The problems the agencies inherit can be daunting: acid mine drainage, contaminated water, sterile soils, and collapsing structures and shafts, according to Montana’s DEQ. Mine tailings (a sludgelike by-product of extracting precious minerals from rock) contain cyanide as well as heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and lead—all of which pose serious human health hazards.

From left: Smelters at the base of Anaconda Hill in Butte in 1899; downtown Butte in 2018. The original gallows frames that were used to lower miners underground stand as a vestige of the past.
Credit: New York Public Library; Janie Osborne

Cleanup may involve removing waste, blocking dangerous mine openings, diverting stream water, and replacing topsoil. It may even require accounting for the needs of resident wildlife—for example, bats live in mine entrances, and the DEQ will sometimes install bat-accessible grates during the remediation process.

One “success story” touted by the Bureau of Land Management is the cleanup of Montana’s Zortman-Landusky Mine, where operators dumped pollutants into tributaries and rivers after promising that the mine wouldn’t impact the water supply, Brooks says. The mine owner declared bankruptcy in 1998, leaving federal and state agents in charge of an extensive restoration project. Despite the construction of four water treatment plants and various monitoring and maintenance efforts to help correct the damage, notes Gestring, “the Zortman-Landusky Mine will generate acid mine drainage in perpetuity. It has already polluted nearly a dozen streams in the Little Rockies, and more than $20 million in public funds have been spent on water treatment, with no end in sight.”

Contaminated water drawn from a creek near the Berkeley Pit

As of now, there are about 85 hard-rock mines or smelters on the national Superfund list, but there’s no dollar amount committed specifically to dealing with them. A tax on current coal projects is earmarked for future cleanup costs. Meanwhile, citizens will continue to pay for this contamination of their water supplies and the damage to their recreation sites and local fisheries. “Permanent treatment incurs permanent costs, which companies leave behind to the public,” Brooks says.

New Mines, Same Stories

In 2015, two mining companies proposed new gold mines just north of Yellowstone National Park, on Montana’s Emigrant Gulch and on Crevice Mountain. Both companies insisted mining could be performed in an environmentally sensitive manner.

The claims did little to allay the concerns of local environmental and business groups. The Park County Environmental Council pointed out how acid mine drainage could pollute groundwater and tributaries that flow into the Yellowstone River, which supports both agriculture and outdoor recreation. The mines could also fracture migration routes for grizzly bears, lynx, and bighorn sheep.

After the developments were proposed, thousands of local businesses, officials, and community members secured a two-year “time-out” from the U.S. Department of the Interior in November 2016. The pause, which temporarily withdrew mineral rights on new mining claims across 30,000 acres of public lands in Paradise Valley, was supported by the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition (YGBC), made up of hundreds of businesses dependent on clean water in the Yellowstone area. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are considering a 20-year ban on new gold mining claims in the public lands of Paradise Valley. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will make a final decision at the end of 2018.

A view of the Smith River from a cave in the cliffs above

The Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, now making its way through the U.S. House and Senate, would permanently withdraw those same 30,000 acres. The legislation was introduced by Montana’s Democratic senator, Jon Tester, in early 2017, and also has been supported by Montana’s Greg Gianforte, a Republican congressman who introduced a companion bill in the House.

Still, mining claims are proceeding on adjacent private lands. Lucky Minerals, the company that proposed the new gold mine on Emigrant Gulch, secured a permit from the DEQ to begin exploratory drilling of 46 holes up to 2,000 feet deep on private lands. While private land isn’t protected, some activists hope that the passage of federal legislation would at least limit the mine’s scale.

Others note that even if federal protections are enacted for some areas, Montana’s natural resources remain vulnerable to mining damage on private or state lands—including the copper mine proposed at the headwaters of the Smith. “We’d like to see I-186 in effect this year,” says Gestring, “so that Sandfire must demonstrate, up front, that it won’t generate lasting pollution.”

As Montanans await the outcome of the ballot measure, many are hopeful that they can keep a family float trip down the Smith River on their bucket list. Skoglund is eager to take his two young children there one day, assuming he gets lucky again in the lottery.

NRDC isn’t opposed to mining, Skoglund notes. “We’re aware of the reality and importance of mining for modern-day society’s economy to function,” he says. “But there are certain places where mines don’t make sense because they’re too valuable in other ways. More valuable, as they say, than a mine.”

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