Montana is rife with abandoned mines left by more than a century of men bent on finding fortunes. Now nonprofit groups are joining with businesses and government agencies to clean up the sites by mining them again.
For the past year, the Bozeman nonprofit Future West has located around 9,000 abandoned mine sites in southwestern Montana and selected a few for the first reclamation efforts of the Montana Headwaters Abandoned Mine Reclamation Project.
On Thursday, Future West spokeswoman Monique DiGiorgio announced that the project received a $50,000 grant from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to develop its first reclamation effort.
“One site in one watershed doesn't define the whole project. But this will help us figure out the specifics of what the larger project will look like in the future,” DiGiorgio said.
In another example of collaborative efforts, the project seeks to develop a business model that would fund the environmental cleanup of abandoned mines by extracting the precious metals in tailings and waste rock.
Sale of the metals would provide the money for the cleanup of waste that continues to degrade headwater streams.
Before the environmental controls of the later 20th century, miners stripped waste rock out of their mines and left it exposed. They took the large mineral deposits that they could extract and abandoned the mine without cleaning up.
Trout Unlimited has worked on reclaiming abandoned mines for a decade, and project manager Warren Colyer said mine waste is a significant problem for fisheries and water quality in the West.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40 percent of headwater streams are polluted by lead, arsenic, zinc, mercury and other toxic chemicals that leach out of abandoned waste rock.
“That's a greater percentage than what is usually acknowledged,” Colyer said. “Most of these sites have never been cleaned up because of the expense and the liability. If someone tries to go in and clean up an abandoned site, they own it and are liable – that's a huge deterrent.”
The government doesn't have the money to turn every abandoned mine into a Superfund site such as the one around Butte, and environmental groups can't afford to step in alone.
That's where Barrick Golden Sunlight mine near Whitehall comes in.
Golden Sunlight Vice President Mark Thompson said his company has the technology to extract microscopic gold from the waste rock.
“It's a neat project – it's a win-win-win all around,” Thompson said. “We're always looking for additional opportunities like these and we prioritize Jefferson and Madison county communities. This will give us added mine life.”
The Golden Sunlight mine recently received a nod from the Department of Environmental Quality to slightly expand its open-pit mines near Whitehall. The expansion gives the operation an additional two years of work.
Thompson said abandoned mine reclamation could further extend the life of Golden Sunlight. Over the past few years, the mine has processed 550,000 tons of reclaimed material, around 10 percent of their operation, and the payout has been around $40 million.
“It's not small potatoes,” Thompson said. “But the partnership is about how we maximize the value, not just the money.”
The money is a critical factor, however.
Golden Sunlight is currently processing reclaimed material because the price of gold is around $1,200 an ounce after peaking in 2010 at $1,900 an ounce. Once the price drops below $1,000 an ounce, it's no longer a viable option because of the cost of the process and shipping, Thompson said.
Golden Sunlight is also limited to processing gold from only around 15 tons of waste rock a month. There is currently no alternative for processing if the waste rock contains other metals.
However, if the project takes off, Thompson said he might use his connections to bring in groups or technology that could process other metals.
That's why location was a big part of the selection criteria for the first sites: They had to be near the Golden Sunlight mine.
In a report released last week, Future West detailed how they waded through data from 13 counties, including Gallatin and Madison counties, to make the first cut, bringing the number down to around 360 sites.
Using models that prioritized different environmental aspects, they selected two primary watersheds: North Willow Creek near Pony and Alder Gulch near Virginia City.
The $50,000 grant is to develop the Pony project in Madison County, which pleases Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel.
Happel's father mined in the area and Happel would like to see mining jobs return to his county. He foresees a time when mines would be developed to subsidize reclamation.
But he understands the poor environmental legacy that mines have had. So he's pleased that the project has brought together groups that are often opposed.
“I'm invested in seeing mining step forward and become a different enterprise. We need to bring responsible mining back to Montana. Every time we send a job over to someplace like Brazil, it has more of an environmental impact,” Happel said. “If we don't have the right attitude, the project could have problems. But I'm not going to allow negativity to stop this.”
Happel suggested bringing Montana Tech onboard to improve the technology for processing minute amounts of different metals.
DiGiorgio said she appreciates Happel's enthusiasm but that Future West is waiting to see what all the funding options are before signing on to additional mining.
“This is what can happen when partners with different perspectives come together – it can be tenuous,” DiGiorgio said. “We would want to know what the mining looks like. We don't have those answers yet, but we are willing to explore the idea.”
Exploring that idea requires a feasibility study that could cost as much as $300,000. DiGiorgio said the Headwaters partnership is trying to raise money for the study.
In the meantime, the DNRC planning grant will see the project into 2015 when the Montana Legislature convenes. The Headwaters Group needs additional funding through the DNRC to reclaim the first mine, and the Legislature must appropriate that funding, said Future West's Dennis Glick.
“These projects aren't cheap,” Glick said. “There probably isn't enough government money out there to do all the reclamation. So the idea is to use partnerships to accelerate and maintain reclamation efforts.”
Other partners include the DNRC, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the Craighead Institute, Trout Unlimited and Madison and Jefferson counties.