A company that moved mountains runs into a wall

  • Fort Belknap Indian Reservation

    Diane Sylvain
  • Bill Halver

    Heather Abel photo
  • Catherine Halver

    Heather Abel photo
  • Protecting Mother Earth powwow near Zortman mine

    Mark Downey/Great Falls Tribune

Note: This reporter's notebook article accompanies this issue's feature story.

HAYS, Mont. - When Bill Halver laughs, he throws his head back and bares the few teeth he has left. He is telling how he, a small-time rancher from a remote eastern Montana town, helped paralyze Pegasus Gold Corp., the state's most powerful mining company. And he finds it really, really funny.

Bill Halver is telling this story in August, while we are sitting in lawn chairs in the shade of his RV, surrounded by tents, teepees and the general clutter of a four-day meeting of indigenous people called the Protecting Mother Earth Conference.

The story Halver tells is an involved one. It begins in the 1890s, when gold prospectors led by Pike Landusky and Pete Zortman found gold in the Little Rocky Mountains. They are called the Island Mountains by Native Americans because they rise out of the rolling, brown horizon like islands from the sea. When the miners realized they were on the southeastern corner of the Fort Belknap Reservation, they notified the federal government. A few years later, Washington sent three men out West.

They threatened the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes with loss of their winter food supplies if they didn't hand over the land: "If you don't make any agreement with the government, you will just have to kill your cattle, and then you will have to starve," one commissioner warned.

The tribes sold the 40,000 acres for $36,000. They didn't starve that winter. Instead, they lived to see the mining companies cart off over $1 million in gold from what had been their land.

Most of the rich veins of gold that were minable with 19th and early 20th century technology were played out by the 1950s, and the Bureau of Land Management began talking to the tribes about returning the land to them. These talks ended abruptly in the 1970s, when Pegasus Mining Co. found a way to mine extremely low-grade ore using cyanide and open pits. It wanted to try out the method in the Little Rocky Mountains.

When Pegasus started digging its Zortman-Landusky cyanide heap-leach mines in 1979, no one on the reservation realized how big the project would become. From where Bill Halver and his wife, Catherine, a member of the Assiniboine tribe, graze a few cows and sheep at their home on the edge of the Fort Belknap Reservation, they could at first barely make out the single leach pad on which the ore was piled and onto which the cyanide solution was sprinkled.

By 1989, the mines had expanded no less than nine times. There were now 11 leach pads, and when the Halvers heard about yet another proposed mine expansion that year, they decided to attend an informational meeting. There, an engineer "with more letters behind his name than in it" told them it would be perfectly safe. Even if there were a spill, all mine water flowed south.

But Catherine and Bill Halver knew one creek flowed north from the mine - to their ranch.

"We're not real smart or educated but can read the English language," says Halver. "Pegasus, BLM and the state lied to us."

About the same time, the effects of the metastasizing mines started hitting the reservation. Health care workers noticed more cases of cancer and lead poisoning. Catherine and Bill Halver, who had been gathering information about the mine ever since that meeting, got tired of people doubting their data. They started the watchdog group Island Mountain Protectors in 1990.

When the company applied for permits to triple the size of its mines, Island Mountain Protectors and another native group, Red Thunder, warned about acid mine drainage - heavy metals and acids that leak from mines when sulfide ores are exposed to air. But the state and BLM denied it was a problem, so in June 1993, the groups threatened a lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act.

A few weeks later, the groups led a hike from the reservation to the Zortman Mine, where they held a prayer ceremony. As the protesters headed down the mountain, rain started falling. It didn't stop that day. Or that night. It didn't stop until a muddy river of highly acidic water was flowing into the town of Zortman at a rate of approximately 5,000 gallons per minute.

The flood made it a little harder for the BLM and the state of Montana to deny what the mine was doing. In fact, the flood signaled a change in the fortunes of Pegasus. The resistance groups' plan to file suit against the mine prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate. It found that the mine had been leaking heavy metals and cyanide into each of its seven drainages for years, and filed suit itself. When EPA's suit was settled in July 1996, Pegasus had to pay $37 million in fees and bonds to the federal and state governments and the tribes, one of the nation's largest clean-water payouts.

Of the total, $32 million went to build facilities to clean the water. The mine had been permitted on the assumption that there were no sulfide ores, and so there would be no acid mine drainage. By the time the state and feds recognized that Pegasus was mining sulfide ores, the chemical process that produces acid mine drainage had already started. It is almost impossible to stop this process.

Despite the suit, the BLM and the state approved the company's 11th expansion three months later. Island Mountain Protectors and the tribes appealed the federal permit and, in a rare move, the administrative court that oversees the BLM shut down construction at the mines this July until it could make a decision on the appeal.

It had taken the Halvers and their allies seven years, but they had finally proved their point. A couple of dozen angry folks - with help from environmental attorneys and activists - had brought a Fortune 500 company to its knees.

Halver grins all the way through his lengthy account, until I ask him if he feels victorious. He stops laughing. When this all started, he says, simply cleaning up the creek would have meant victory. But as he and Catherine became more involved in the spiritual traditions of the tribe, they realized they weren't getting at what really mattered.

"We realized they wiped out a whole mountain, he says. "(Spirit Mountain) no longer exists."

He points up. The meadow, green and lush thanks to late-summer thunderstorms, is crowned by the Little Rocky Mountains. But Spirit Mountain is missing from among the peaks we can see. So is the peak behind it. In their place are the nation's oldest cyanide heap-leach mines, two 18-year-old industrial complexes joined by a road. From where we are sitting below them they look like a single giant, raw scar. The mountains seem the victim of a recent bombing.

From this perspective, it is easy to understand why the people here feel the victory is only partial. When I talk to white, middle-class environmentalists in western Montana, I often hear, "I'm not against gold mining, but ..." No one I talk to at this conference - which is run and attended almost entirely by Native Americans - speaks the language of compromise.

From Peru and Alaska

A thousand people have come from as far as Peru and Alaska to this eighth annual conference of the Indigenous Environmental Network. After opening prayers and speeches, they split into sessions discussing environmental threats facing native people in North and South America, from nuclear waste to pulp and paper mills. But it is the meeting of anti-mining activists that draws the largest crowd. Western Shoshone elder Carrie Dann starts the meeting:

"The indigenous ways are different from the Christian ways. We have (spirit guides) that live out there. These are the ones that work with us in our ceremonies. These are the ones we talk with in our lifetime. They're the ones we walk with when we need help. This is what is dying out there. They're killing us spiritually and culturally," she says. "United States, who claims to stand up for human rights, what they're doing in gold mining and mining in general is destroying humanity."

She starts to cry and has to hand the microphone to Steve Iukes, an elder from the Colville tribe. He tells about a proposed gold mine bordering his reservation in Washington state until wrenching sobs end his speech. Hilda Sampson tells about a mine in her Venezuelan village and cries softly. Her translator cries, too.

I have never before been to a meeting where most of the speakers cried. As everyone else lines up for dinner, the anti-mining activists keep talking. The sun is setting. Everyone is hungry. But like lost relatives or new lovers, these activists have found each other, and they don't want to let go.

The next morning, I drive out of the powwow grounds along a dirt road that runs through a narrow canyon and comes out in the town of Hays, population 300. The road parallels a swift, clear stream lined with signs that read, "No swimming, mine tailings." Although it is still early, the day is already hot, and kids are swimming. Downtown Hays consists of one store that seems to sell mainly fried pork rinds, condensed milk, and last week's paper. The line for the single pay phone is the busiest place in town.

It takes me an hour to drive from Hays, at the southern edge of the reservation, to the Milk River, which forms the northern border. The reservation is vast - over 700,000 acres - and empty. Only 2,500 people live in this flat, dry place, mostly because jobs are non-existent. The reservation has 70 percent unemployment; only a handful of Indians have ever worked at the mines.

Once I'm off the reservation, I realize it is like an island. Not only is it much poorer than the surrounding farming towns - I can't find a grocery store until I enter Dodson, just across the border - but disgust with gold mining seems to end precisely at the reservation line. Malta, a spruced-up hamlet east of the reservation, is the population hub and the county seat. No one here mentions "destroyed mountains." They talk about the mines with a loyalty usually reserved for large families or baseball teams.

The county commissioners' office in Malta is decorated entirely with giant, full-color framed photos of the mines. "We support the mine completely. We believe they're doing a good job," says County Commissioner Carol Kienenberger. "They actually improved the area. Before it was just scrub and rocks."

Despite its loyalty, Malta is on the verge of a bust. Because the mine, the town's largest employer, has been waiting for the expansion permits held up by resisters like Catherine Halver, over 100 people have lost their jobs, and most have moved away. If the mine closes permanently, the county will lose nearly 20 percent of its tax base. Already, Kienenberger has had to lay off workers in county offices, including the person hired to develop new jobs and businesses.

An hour's drive south from Malta and I'm back near Hays, but in the mountainous corner that is no longer part of the reservation. The Zortman-Landusky Mine sits in suspended animation. Still, the 70 or so employees at the mine office in the mountain town of Zortman, population 150, keep their faith in the mining company.

Clark Kelly is one of them. He has agreed to meet at the Zortman Diner for breakfast, although he is skeptical of me and of High Country News. He says this right away, looking at me sideways, as if expecting a rebuttal.

Kelly has been in charge of mine safety for six years. Pegasus pays him well and provides him with excellent benefits. When his wife died suddenly six years ago, leaving him with three young daughters, the company was compassionate, giving him time off and financial support.

When he returned to work, he noticed that the company had troubles of its own: the $37 million clean-water settlement and difficulties getting a permit for its 11th expansion.

"I was looking at a company that treated me so well and then to see the company treated so unfairly, well, I needed to stand up and fight," he says. "We needed to get together."

He started Together we Educate, Activate, and Motivate, TEAM, to support the mining industry against environmentalists and Indians. Currently, TEAM is challenging Island Mountain Protectors' appeal of the expansion. Kelly pulls out today's Great Falls Tribune with a front-page article about the Indigenous Environmental Network gathering.

"We are just as indigenous as Native Americans," he says. "Who's the indigenous here? They haven't been here for two to three hundred years. They haven't been here much longer than mining. Spiritual sites? As soon as there's a threat, all of a sudden these concerns come up."

Pete Clausen, an older man seated in the next booth, chimes in: "These mountains have become sacred in the last few years ...There is no such place called Spirit Mountain. I don't believe there's one burial ground. I traveled around these mountains."

That evening, I return to the island, to the powwow grounds. More lawn chairs have been pulled in front of the Halvers' RV. I meet their son and children I assume are grandkids. This is a conference of families. Toddlers wander in front of the microphones; elders are given the best teepees and first meals. At night, the campground becomes a town of teenagers strutting, cruising and making out in the darkness.

The adults are telling stories. I hear about the time Rose Main made a mine official apologize to a tribal elder, and about the miner who keeps asking Catherine Halver to show him the sacred sites on the mountains.

Everyone starts laughing and Catherine leans over to explain the joke to me:

"The mining company doesn't realize when they ask, "Where are those sites?" Those are personal, where these men go. That's not public knowledge. If you can go up here and see where they were, they didn't do it right. Try to get the honkies to understand that. We don't worship every Sunday. We worship 365 days. We practice every day ... They can't understand it. They say, "Point out where so and so fasted." The family might not even know where he went. Only the animals."

Four months later, a chapter in Bill Halver's story comes to a close. After an overseas operation failed, Pegasus' stocks plummet and the company teeters on the verge of bankruptcy. Montana's DEQ says this will not effect its decision to allow the Zortman-Landusky mine to expand; but the company might not find the funds to go through with it. In December, Clark Kelly is fired. He hopes to find work in Malta, so as not to disrupt his daughters, who are in high school there. But he is worried.

"I'm 46 years old and I've got kids and a wife and nobody wants to hire a middle-aged white guy anymore," says Kelly. "But I'm hoping the corporation gets straightened out. It could be one, two, three years down the road."

Even if Pegasus does abandon Zortman-Landusky, the story is not over for the Fort Belknap Reservation. There is clean-up at the mine. And there is the fact that the Little Rocky Mountains are still loaded with gold. As long as there has been a state of Montana, someone has found a way to wrench these mountians apart for gold.

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