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Know the West

Reclaiming a golden landscape


A court-ordered cleanup plan for the Golden Sunlight Mine in western Montana marks the beginning of a golden era of mine reclamation, say local environmentalists.

"For the first time since the West was opened by miners, people have stood up and told the mining industry that they can't leave a ravaged landscape when a mine closes," says Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation.

Four environmental groups, including NWF, filed suit against the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in 1998, when it approved Golden Sunlight's plan to only partially reclaim the open-pit, heap-leach gold mine near Whitehall. The 25-year-old mine opened a 1,200-foot-high gash in the rolling Bull Mountains.

Helena District Judge Thomas C. Honzel ruled that the state violated a provision of the Montana Constitution that requires all mined lands be reclaimed. He ruled that the state structured the reclamation based on Golden Sunlight's financial concerns.

"There is nothing in the constitution or the (Metal Mine Reclamation Act) which allows a reclamation decision to be based on ' whether a mine operator will make a profit," Honzel said. "Yet that is the premise DEQ started with." The judge then instructed the state to mandate a more extensive reclamation, one which could cost as much as $2.3 million.

"Now we'll see a landscape that is in harmony with the rest of the Bull Mountains," says France. "Plus, the unoxidized material in the open pit will be covered, minimizing acid-mine drainage."

Mine officials say they wouldn't have turned over one shovelful of earth in mining had they envisioned such a price tag.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Mark Matthews