Mining on the run

  Since Montana voters passed an initiative last November blocking certain kinds of mining, the industry has taken its hits. In the wake of a ban on new and expanded open-pit cyanide heap-leach mining, both the Montana Mining Association and the company behind the controversial McDonald gold mine have laid off employees.

The mining association is down to only one employee: executive director Jill Andrews. And she can rattle off a long list of companies that have either scaled back operations to skeleton crews or quit the state altogether. Exploration, she adds, has come to a dead halt. As a result, her association has lost about 70 percent of its members and nearly two-thirds of its budget.

"I'm in a world of hurt," she told the Billings Gazette. Andrews says the association plans to sue the state to overturn the initiative.

Besides the ban, Canyon Resources Corp., the Colorado-based company proposing the McDonald mine at the headwaters of the Blackfoot River, has been hammered by the lowest gold prices in two decades. Recently, the company slashed the mine's staff to two part-time workers.

Canyon President Richard DeVoto says the company is trying to gather enough money to level a takings lawsuit against the state in an effort to recoup $70 million that has been spent on the permitting process.

Speaking for the industry, Andrews says she's bitter about what has happened in Montana.

"Environmental organizations have to have an enemy in order to raise money," she says. "The mining industry has been their poster child for years. When we're gone, they'll find some other industry to destroy."

*Tim Westby

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