Opponents Pan Effort to Expand Cyanide Leach Gold Mining

Posted on March 23, 2011

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By CODY BLOOMSBURG

HELENA — Opposition was fierce Wednesday against a bill that would allow a handful of mines to expand their cyanide ore processing operations — a style of mining voters have twice rebuked over concerns about the effects of the toxic chemical on the groundwater and the environment.

In 1998, voters banned new cyanide heap and vat leach mining operations after several spills and leaks were recorded, starting with one in 1983 that leaked 19 million gallons of cyanide solution into the groundwater near the Jefferson River. In 2004, voters affirmed the ban by rejecting an initiative to overturn it.

What many called a blatant disregard for the will of the people, Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, called a jobs bill and something to help Jefferson County fund its schools.

Under Murphy’s Senate Bill 306, mines that were permitted to use cyanide heap and vat leach mining before the 1998 voter ban could truck in ore from other open pit mines and treat it with the methods.

“What we need to do in Jefferson County is not only create new jobs, which we think passage of this bill will do, but it will also retain over 200 of the best paying private sector jobs in the county,” Murphy said.

He said the bill would also help keep his district’s Golden Sunlight Mine open longer – and paying taxes to fund schools.

But Eddie Olwell, of Stevensville, saw it differently.

“I argue that this will be a job-killing bill because we will degrade these resources,” Olwell said.

The resources he spoke of are Montana’s rivers and streams that draw campers, hikers and anglers. He and most opponents said the measure would increase the likelihood of cyanide seeping into the watershed and give rise to new open-pit mines that could cause acid drainage into the future.

“These natural resources are worth a lot more than gold,” Olwell said of the rivers. “And they will produce forever if we take care of them.”

The Golden Sunlight Mine at Whitehall is one of the mines that was grandfathered in under the 1998 ban and continues to use the cyanide methods. In support of the bill, the mine’s superintendent, Mark Thompson, told the committee he did not believe that trucking ore into the site for processing would expand the use of cyanide, it would only extend the life of the mine.

Thompson said he thought the industry itself was at the heart of the argument, not the method.

“The real issue here is not cyanide, it’s that (the 1998 cyanide ban) shut the door to mining in Montana,” Thompson said.

But many of the opponents disagreed. Several said they were for mining, just not cyanide heap or vat leach, or the creation of new open-pit mines.

No action was taken on the bill.

– Reporter Cody Bloomsburg can be reached at 208-816-0809 or by e-mail at crbloomsburg@hotmail.com

Posted in: Daily Grind