Montana's hard-rock mining industry has enjoyed smooth sailing through state courts and regulatory agencies. But now a district court judge in Helena has rocked the boat, ruling that reclamation at open-pit mines must include the pit itself. Mining in Montana may never be the same.
1, Judge Thomas Honzel ruled that the state illegally approved,
without a full environmental impact statement, expansion at the
Golden Sunlight, a sprawling mine in the Bull Mountains near
Whitehall. Relying only on a modified environmental assessment, the
Department of State Lands approved expansion of the mine's pit from
140 to 209 acres. The agency also allowed the mine to excavate an
additional 210 million tons of waste rock and 30 million tons of
Montana law "does not permit this kind of
approve-now, ask-questions-later approach to environmental
decision-making," the judge said in a 47-page ruling. "Even after
it is shut down, the mine will continue to generate an estimated 95
gallons of toxic water every minute for the rest of time," he
Perhaps more significantly, the judge also
declared that a 1985 state law exempting open-pit mines from
reclamation violates Montana's constitution. The law says
reclamation of open pits "may not be feasible." Kim Wilson, an
attorney representing environmentalists, describes the phrase as "a
big glaring loophole" for most of the more recent open-pit mines in
Noting that the 1972 Montana
Constitution says that, "All lands disturbed by the taking of
natural resources shall be reclaimed," Honzel concluded that
open-pit mines are not exempt. An editorial in The Montana Standard
agreed, noting, "The language couldn't be clearer ..."
Mining groups say the decision, which also
applies to future mines, could devastate the industry.
Environmental groups say it will finally make companies fully
accountable for the environmental destruction caused by their
"What this is really about is saving
the Blackfoot (River) and Rock Creek and the Sweetgrass Hills and
any other place where open-pit, cyanide heap-leach mines are
planned," says Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information
Center (MEIC). "The decision means you fill up a hole when you get
through mining. There will be no more Berkeley Pits."
The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Mont., is a gigantic
hole holding 17 billion gallons of toxic wastewater left over from
the operation of an open-pit copper mine (HCN,
The case began in 1992, when the
National Wildlife Federation, the Mineral Policy Center, the Sierra
Club, the Gallatin Wildlife Association and MEIC filed suit against
Golden Sunlight and the state.
Sandi Olsen, chief
of the state's Hard Rock Bureau, says that when preparing the
assessment of the mine's impacts, "We did the best we could with
the time we had and the resources we had. It wasn't good enough.
What can I say? I'm not about to second-guess the judge."
Olsen says the state will take at least four
months to prepare a full environmental impact statement for Golden
Sunlight's expansion, some of which has already occurred at a cost
of some $40 million. It will be up to state legislators, she says,
to define new standards for pit reclamation.
battle over what constitutes pit reclamation promises to be
Fess Foster, director of geology and
environmental affairs for Golden Sunlight Mine, says Judge Honzel's
ruling contains some ambiguity. "Bottom line, the decision does
call for pit reclamation, but it does not define pit reclamation."
Honzel's order "could have severe implications
if taken to the extreme," says Gary Langley of the Montana Mining
Association. The extreme, he says, would require complete
back-filling of pits. Such reclamation typically is neither
economically nor technologically feasible, he
Langley says the groups who sued Golden
Sunlight and the state have a larger agenda. "All they really want
to do is stop mining. I guess they got what they wanted."
Environmentalists disagree. "The decision is not
anti-mining. It's pro-reclamation," says Tom Jensen. "If we were
out to stop mining, we would have sought an injunction to shut down
"We do need the benefits that mining
can bring," adds Philip Hocker, president of the Mineral Policy
Center. "But we don't need to trash the Northern Rockies to have
To date, neither Golden
Sunlight nor the state has announced whether there will be an
appeal of Honzel's decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Honzel's decision has not halted
operations at the Golden Sunlight mine. Mining there has ceased for
a different reason: The earth has been shifting beneath the mine's
Duncan Adams is a
free-lance writer based in Anaconda,