(This article first appeared in Multinational Monitor and is part of Chapter 3: Chiapas via Alaska: The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries)
A century of mining and decades of clear-cutting have taken their toll on Western Montana’s formerly pristine Blackfoot River. Once a world-class trout stream and the subject of Norman McLean’s classic novel A River Runs Through It, the river has been transformed into a muddy concoction of heavy metals and silt flowing west from the Continental Divide into the Clark Fork River just east of Missoula, Montana.
There are virtually no fish in the river now. The Blackfoot drainage has been so badly denuded by Wall Street robber barons that when Robert Redford came to Montana to produce the recent movie based on McLean’s novel, he chose to film on the Gallatin River instead. In April 1992 American Rivers listed the Blackfoot among the ten most endangered rivers in the United States, noting that the river may not be able to withstand another industry onslaught. It now appears this day of reckoning is just around the bend.
In 1989, while Champion International was busy clear-cutting the lower Blackfoot to feed its newly retooled mill at Bonner, Montana, mining firms began exploring for gold east of Lincoln, Montana – near the headwaters of the river. The two companies, Phelps Dodge and Canyon Resources, formed the Seven-Up Pete Venture, later renamed the McDonald Gold Project. By 1992 it had become apparent that the project site contained 8.2 million ounces of gold. If given the go-ahead, it will be the largest gold mine in North America, and one with potentially dire ecological consequences.
“A century of mining, grazing and logging have all but destroyed [the Blackfoot] river,” says Dan Funsch, outreach director for the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Now, for a few lousy wedding rings, the McDonald Gold Project wants to finish it off.”
Enter Echo Bay
With gold prices on the rise and mounting opposition from environmentalists and sports enthusiasts, Phelps Dodge Mining Company announced in June 1994 that it will sell its 72% majority share in the McDonald Gold Project for $150 million. Under the proposed deal, Canyon Resources Corporation would increase its share of the mine from 28% to 45% percent. Echo Bay Mining – a notorious Canadian gold mining company – would become majority owner and operator of the McDonald Gold Project.
The McDonald Gold Project will employ cyanide heap leaching to recover the gold. In this process a cyanide solution is sprayed over heaps of extracted ore. Gold settles at the bottom of the solution onto a heap leach pad and the toxic ore is hauled to a waste site. The process became popular in the mid-1970s and has resulted in a gold mining boom in Montana and elsewhere, since it is much cheaper and faster than other methods of gold mining. The environmental consequences are also much more nefarious.
The project plans call for creating an open pit a square mile wide and 1,400 feet deep that would not be reclaimed. As a result, the pit will eventually fill with runoff containing thirty-three different elements, many of which will be highly toxic metals. Since the water table in the area is as high as 300 feet below the surface of the ground, many fear this toxic soup could easily contaminate the area’s drinking water. The mine is located where Landers Fork – an important bull trout spawning stream – and the Blackfoot meet. Any leaks under the leaching pad could dump cyanide into the groundwater supply or into the river itself.
Company representatives deny the cyanide heap leaching process is environmentally harmful. Cheryl Martin – director of investor relations at Canyon Resources Corporation – claims, “We feel that we can build a permittable mine that will not impact the [Blackfoot] river in any way.” Rick Lambert, McDonald Gold Project chief engineer for Phelps Dodge says, “You have to understand the geological situation. Here we have an oxide deposit since there is primarily gold. In Butte where there have been problems with acid water, the deposit is sulfide since it’s mostly copper. Spraying cyanide over gold is like pouring salt into water. The only problems that could occur are if cyanide reacts with other gases.” An Echo Bay Mining representative declined to comment on the mine, stating, “I cannot speak for a mine that we do not own.”
Environmentalists fear other detrimental consequences of the mine. They note with concern that the mining project, which is expected to last 12 years, will produce 400 million tons of cyanide-laden ore waste, which will be piled near Landers Fork close to Highway 200.
Some environmentalists believe the project is actually the first stage of a grand plan by the mining industry. The mining companies will apparently be designing their facilities to accommodate more ore than they intend to extract at the McDonald Gold Project. Geological evidence points to incredible mineral wealth in the entire Upper Blackfoot Valley.
Independent filmmaker and mining industry critic Gene Bernofsky of Missoula thinks Montana may be entering another round of mineral colonization. Bernofsky recently won acclaim for A River Cries, a film that chronicles the Blackfoot’s demise and the proposed mine. He says Montana may be heading toward a heyday for global mining firms comparable to the early 1900s – when the Rockefeller-controlled and viciously anti-union Anaconda Company created what is now the biggest Superfund site in the nation near Missoula, Montana. “Echo Bay aspires to go down in history next to the Anaconda Company. We aspire to keep them out of Montana,” he says.
The Baucus Connection
The McDonald Gold Project covers forty-four square miles of state and private lands. The private land is owned by Sieben Ranch Corporation – the largest sheep ranch in Montana owned since 1896 by the Baucus family. Montana’s Democratic Senator Max Baucus holds between $250,000 and $500,000 in stock in Sieben Ranch. Whether Baucus has a financial interest in the success of the McDonald Gold Project is unclear. Curt Rich – Baucus administrative aide who specializes in natural resources policy – says he knows of no royalties or lease agreements. “Siebens is run by Max’s brother. Max does not get involved in management decisions of the corporation,” says Rich, who failed to follow up on a promise to research the financial agreement between Siebens and the McDonald Gold Project and then contact Multinational Monitor.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve, Stickin’ it to the Matrix & The Federal Reserve Cartel. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com