For decades, hard rock mining, the search for gold, silver and other precious metals, brought people, industry and wealth to Montana. But corporations funding the mining, mostly foreign-owned, abandoned the played-out mines, leaving once beautiful mountains as gutted waste sites and pristine streams poisoned. Laura Lundquist, a contributing writer for coldtruth.com, shares her opinions on what should be done to try to heal the toxic wounds scarring the beautiful state.
Mining companies have had it good for over a century.
The 1872 Mining Law exempted them from paying extraction royalties or taxes, unlike petroleum companies, even though they made enormous profits.
They were also not taxed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, which, by taxing the chemical and petroleum industries, created a trust fund for hazardous site cleanup, known as the Superfund.
To top it all off, many mining companies end up not paying for mine cleanup, or they pay very little.
Companies like the worldwide mining giant Pegasus Gold Corporation and W.R. Grace established their claim and extracted all the ore they could. Critics accused both companies and many others in the Northwest with cutting environmental and human health corners in favor of the bottom line.
They shut down when prices or demand dropped and eventually declared bankruptcy. Since the companies were thus protected from cleanup responsibility, the state and federal government were left footing the bill.
Companies such as Pegasus have created the conditions that are spurring reform of the 139-year-old mining law. The reform legislation would establish a fund, similar to the Superfund, to pay for massive cleanup efforts when mining companies go bankrupt.
The Beal Mountain mine, 30 miles southwest of Butte, Mont., is one example of this situation. Earlier this month, the U.S. Forest Service held a public meeting to present cleanup proposals for the site formerly operated by Pegasus.
Pegasus used heap leach mining, now banned in Montana, to extract gold from Beal Mountain from 1988 to 1997, but declared bankruptcy in 1998.
The $6.2 million that Pegasus contributed to a cleanup bond was insufficient to begin to do the job.
Heap leach mining is almost always an environment-destroying process of extracting almost invisible flecks of gold from rock and mine tailings. The rock is shoved into a leach pad or lined holding area where a fine spray of cyanide is trickled over it to extract the gold.
Mike Browne, Beal Mountain on-scene coordinator for the Forest Service says because of errors in how Pegasus constructed the leach pad bottom liner, contaminated water seeps out to the groundwater and the local creek.
Because Beal Mountain site doesn’t pose a direct human health threat, the Forest Service has been tapped with closing it, instead of the EPA.
But unlike with Superfund sites, the Forest Service has no trust fund to dip into to close the mine, and Browne said they don’t know what they will do if they can’t come up with the funding.
What Pegasus left behind at Beal Mountain is leaking toxic chemicals, including selenium, arsenic, copper and cyanide. The same situation happened about 340-miles northeast at the Pegasus-run Zortman-Landusky mine in Montana.
The Bureau of Land Management is running up against the same fiscal barriers at this mine near Harlem. Mont. The mine, last owned by Pegasus, is on mountains considered sacred land of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Indians.
The Montana Environmental Information Center said the preferred cleanup plan will cost an estimated $63.5 million, but Pegasus posted only $30 million in the cleanup bond for that site. If Congress doesn’t appropriate the money, the state will be left to do what it can to limit the contamination already polluting the water used by the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
This is exactly why mining reform is overdue.
Mining companies no longer work with picks and shovels as they did in the late 19th century. They have upgraded with modern technology that allows them to destroy a mountain in a decade and walk away when they run out of money.
The law needs to be upgraded to compensate for the 21st century capability for destruction by requiring companies to pay the end costs up-front.
Here is a link to a short video produced by Montana environmentalists that explains more on the use of cyanide and what Pegasus did to the sacred tribal land and water.