On Nov.2, Montanans will vote on Initiative 147, which would repeal the state’s ban on cyanide heap-leach gold and silver mining. The ban was passed by voters for a good reason: Montana, and Indian Country in particular, will suffer for many decades from the pollution caused by mining operations.
Zortman-Landusky Gold Mines, for instance, has declared bankruptcy, leaving behind poisoned streams for Montana tribes and an enormous clean-up bill for Montana taxpayers. The mines were operated by Pegasus Gold Corp. in the Little Rocky Mountains, at the southeast end of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Fort Belknap Reservation.
Pegasus’ Zortman-Landusky Gold Mines were sued under the Clean Water Act and faced a $36 million cleanup settlement in 1996. The company avoided its responsibilities by declaring bankruptcy in 1998.
But Zortman-Landusky made more than $250 billion before declaring bankruptcy. Now, the cost of cyanide leach mining cleanup is projected to many millions of dollars and required into perpetuity.
Montana is currently liable for up to $60 million in reclamation and water treatment costs at the Zortman-Landusky, Beal Mountain and Kendall mines. This year alone, the state is spending $500,000 in taxpayer funds just to develop plans for these cleanups.
The state and the Environmental Protection Agency had filed suit against Pegasus Gold Corp., charging that its mines’ waste discharges present human health risks and that "the acidity of the discharges is killing fish and aquatic life." Water pollution continues to be so severe that the state has determined water treatment will be required forever.
Catherine Halver, 74, tribal member of the Gros-Ventre in Lodgepole, helped fight cyanide leach mining. Halver, who is vice-chairman of the Native grassroots group, Island Mountain Protectors, said Spirit Mountain was ruined before the mining operations of Zortman-Landusky Gold Mines could be halted.
"A lot of our ancestors in the past used this mountain for vision quests and prayers," she said. "That was a very sacred mountain to our people. Now, you go up there and it is just a little pile of rubble. It really affects the old people; a lot of our burial sites were destroyed. There were people buried all over that mountain. They were just digging up the dead."
Halver lives 15 miles from the mine sites; their cyanide-laden waters flow down Little Warm Creek and through her property. Years ago, she fought to get the water tested, and cyanide was found in the water.
"We have got contaminated water running into our reservation every day," Halver said. The poisoned water affects everything, she said, including the sage, chokecherries and other medicine plants, as well as the traditional foods people use every day.
Halver said that though the list of damage goes on and on, a cleanup will never be completed in her lifetime. The mining companies always say they are going to reclaim the land and water, she said, but then, they decide new processes are too expensive or they go out of business.
In 1982, a section of piping used in the mine’s cyanide sprinkling system ruptured and released 52,000 gallons of cyanide solution. At least eight other cyanide spills occurred in the years afterward .
Julie King, Assiniboine of Fort Belknap, remembers playing in those same mountains as a child. She said the waters no longer flow the way they did where the family fished.
"They always leave us a mess to clean up," she said. "They come in for a short time, and then they are gone. But the people here are going to be here for many years, and we have to live with this."
The initiative on the ballot, I-147, overturning Montana's ban on cyanide leach gold mining, is backed by the mining industry, which raised close to $2 million to press for passage. Of that, all but a few percent came from cash and in-kind contributions from Canyon Resources Corp. of Golden, Colo., which has joined forces with a Montana mining group.
Montana is the last of the Western frontier. I know that I am not alone in believing that our water — among the purest in the world — was never meant to turn into a liquid resembling battery acid.