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for people who care about the West

Mining is forever

    "In hardrock mining, it is axiomatic that when a once-profitable mine has been worked out by a company, someone else will attempt to prove that the property is still capable of earning a buck."

      -- David Stiller, Wounding the West: Montana, Mining and the Environment

After a successful career as a hydrologist and consultant for mining companies in Montana, David Stiller decided to write a book. By looking at one mine in Montana that a prospector in 1898 named after his horse - the "Mike Horse" - Stiller says he hoped to alert people to the danger posed to Westerners by more than a half-million abandoned hardrock mines.

One danger is a fatal plunge down a mine shaft. At least one person, he says, dies every year from an exploration gone wrong. The more common danger is to a high-mountain watershed after the blowout of a tailings dam. That happened at the Mike Horse Mine in 1975, Stiller writes, and the river that suffered an onslaught of acid mine waste was the Blackfoot, made famous by Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. Nothing lived for three miles down the river after a plug of acid mine waste swept through it.

Stiller says it's no surprise that miners through the decades routinely put environmental protection last and profits first. Congress in 1872 wrote the mining act to encourage people to move West and settle a wild land. If he had the power to amend the mining law, Stiller writes, he'd dump its "archaic" patenting process that practically gives away mined land to mining companies; then, with money raised from royalties imposed on minerals taken from public lands, he'd tackle cleaning up "the 15,000 worst sites in the West." Abandoned mines may lie mostly in remote places, he concludes, but they share these characteristics: They make a mountain look diseased, and their danger to the environment never ends.

Wounding the West: Montana Mining and the Environment, University of Nebraska Press, 312 N. 14th St., Lincoln, NE 68588 (402/472-3581); $25, 212 pages, photos, maps.