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The mining industry, always rapacious in its desires. Is now setting its sights on 2,500 acres in the Emigrant Peak area of Montana’s Paradise Valley, a spectacular place with rugged mountains, thick forests and cold, crystalline streams that drift down on the Yellowstone River. As usual, gold is the main quarry in this effort. Lucky Minerals Inc. (at least they didn’t have the temerity to name themselves “Life Is Good Mineral Extraction Consortium”, a Surrey, British Columbia, mineral exploration company, has applied for two separate exploration permits in the area, one with the Custer Gallatin National Forest and one on private land with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Emigrant Peak is the backdrop for the famous Chico Hot Springs Resort, just north of Yellowstone National Park, and its owner and general manager Colin Davis isn’t happy about the prospect. “It all leads to only one possibility,” Davis said, “which is a massive, horrific mine back there.”
Lucky Minerals, has applied for two separate exploration permits in the area, one with the Custer Gallatin National Forest and one on private land with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Twelve bore holes are planned for public land and 23 on private holdings to determine if further mining is financially and physically feasible. The project is in its infancy, but a coalition of environmental groups has started a campaign to try and halt the project in its tracks, seeing potential for it to lead to a massive gold mine in the Paradise Valley.
Emigrant Peak and the Yellowstone River, Paradise Valley, Montana.
One only has to search online for photos of the Zortman goldmine in the Little Rockies near the Missouri Breaks to see what this activity leads to. A pristine Montana island mountain range has been savaged. The scars are visible from miles away. Streams that once provided habitat for native trout now run a lifeless, putrid orange. The forest surrounding the devastation is eerily quiet – few birds or mammal, large and small, live here now. And there other mines around the state, whose motto is “oro-y-plata” – gold and silver. The Golden Sunlight mine in southwest Montana a few miles northwest of Whitehall comes to mind. Another blight that is also visible for many miles. Tainted groundwater, curious local cancer rates and the legal ability to use cyanide heap leach pit process to extract gold. The process was outlawed by Montana ballot initiative in 1998, but pre-existing operations like Golden Sunlight were grandfathered in through existing or amended permits.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition along with the Park County Environmental Council and Yellowstone Bend Citizens Council are at the forefront of the resistance. Community meetings in both Emigrant and Livingston have been held. To explore mineral deposits on a fraction of their claims, Lucky is seeking a categorical exclusion from the Forest Service and a checklist environmental assessment from DEQ. Both are lower levels of environmental analysis than other agency processes and are standard for exploration projects. The environmental groups want government agencies to give it tougher scrutiny. They say the exploration could lead to a mine three times the size of the Berkeley Pit.
Neither the state or federal process is complete. The Forest Service is accepting comments on its portion of the project until July 15 – tomorrow. Email comments to: FSfirstname.lastname@example.org. If approved, drilling would start in 2016. The plan the Forest Service is taking comments on isn’t Lucky’s first draft. Originally the company proposed to build some new roads for the project, but backed off of that once the Forest Service told the company it wouldn’t work. Now some of the proposed drill sites are along existing roads and some are in a designated roadless area only accessible by helicopter. The DEQ part of the project is all on private land. Agency officials have visited the site and a draft of their checklist environmental assessment has been internally reviewed, but spokeswoman Kristi Ponozzo said the earliest it would be finalized is late this week.
Should the mine prove profitable, residents and visitors to the area can expect steady traffic from enormous haul trucks, degradation of air and water quality including possible serious damage to the Yellowstone’s world-renowned trout fishery. Noise from the operation will be horrific, but then there is always the delightful improvement to the countryside. Instead of enjoying a skyline of pristine, forest-covered mountains and clear streams there will be lovely scarred of hillsides with a loss of habitat for elk, grizzlies and the like, degraded waters possibly devoid of fish, and merely one more piece of Montana lost to corporate greed.
Lucky has registered with the Montana Secretary of State and has a Livingston post office box, but no staff stationed in the area, sort of like the online university if Jeff Bridges’ long-ago movie, Hearts of the West. That won’t come until exploration is approved. A successful exploration would draw interest from large gold companies who might want to buy the claim.
“If they make us an offer we couldn’t refuse, we’d take it,” said Shaun Dykes, Lucky’s vice president.
The process will take a few years, which is why the company thinks the outrage from the environmental groups is too early. The exploration has yet to be approved and, if it is approved, Lucky must raise $2.5 million from its shareholders to fund it. Pocket change to these boys.
All of this is strikingly familiar, reminding me of the situation in the Blackfoot River drainage near Lincoln in the western part of the state years ago. A Canadian (there all Canadian at heart in the global economy planned to take down a very large hill to 1,500 feet below the valley floor while extracting gold. Fortunately in the early 90s gold prices plummeted and local resistance was fierce. And the plan is shelved, for now, although there are rumblings from the mining industry about revisiting this possibility of making this environmental disaster a dream come true.
One of the things I’ve learned over the decades of writing about the environment is that mining interests are determined, relentless, thorough and extremely forceful. These people won’t go away. It’s never too early to mount a concerted resistance to their planned malignancies. They make timber company executives look like a slap-happy, costumed group of greeters at Disney World.
Oro-y-plata my ass.
(Some of the information contained here was gleaned from Michael Wright’s excellent article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.)