How Much Gold is a River Worth?

New York Times Op-Ed [Editorials and Opinion]
Saturday, April 12, 1997
by David James Duncan

Missoula, Mont.
Montana's Blackfoot River — scene of the Norman Maclean novel and the movie "A River Runs Through It" — is one of the most beautiful rivers on earth. Home to vast herds of elk, endangered grizzly bears, bighorn sheep and wild trout, this area draws tens of thousands of fly-fishing and nature-loving pilgrims every year.

But thanks to a new American gold rush, the Blackfoot is facing a grave threat. While mining corporations enjoy a bonanza, we taxpayers subsidize the industry and pay billions to clean up the mess left behind.

The Phelps Dodge Corporation of Arizona, in a joint venture with a Colorado company, Canyon Resources, wants to mine gold at McDonald Meadows, an eight-square mile site on the upper Blackfoot. Phelps Dodge plans to use trainloads of explosives to turn a riverside butte where elk are now calving into a hole more than a mile in diameter and as deep as the World Trade Center is tall. The only comparable hole in America is the nearby Berkeley Pit in Butte, Mont. — source of the Clark Fork River Superfund sites that are costing $1 billion and a once-legendary trout stream its life.

Phelps Dodge proposes to dry out the Blackfoot pit by lowering the water table of the upper Blackfoot Valley by 1,300 feet. Then it plans to extract millions of tons of rock to reach low-grade ore containing just one-fiftieth of an ounce of gold per ton. To glean tiny gold flecks from the ore, the company proposes stacking it twice the height of the Statue of Liberty over an area larger than New York's Central Park, and pouring billions of gallons of cyanide-laced water in a technique known as heap-leach gold mining.

To protect the river, Phelps Dodge plans to line the base of this waste-heap with plastic the thickness of two pennies. When mining is done, the heap is abandoned. The company would also leave behind a 570-million ton mountain of rock from which heavy metals and sulfuric acid could leach into the watershed forever.

This plan is madness. No one in America has ever dug so huge a pit right beside a river. No one has ever safely dug up so much toxic and acidic rock. No one has safely used cyanide technology in this brutal climate where temperatures can reach 69 degrees below zero. In Summitville, Colo., where the climate is similar, a now-bankrupt Canadian company, Galactic Resources Inc., opened a cyanide heap-leach gold mine in 1986. The plastic containment system ruptured, spewing millions of gallons of poison, killing all life in the Alamosa River and seriously damaging much of the upper Rio Grande. Cleanup has cost taxpayers $150 million and the Alamosa remains lifeless.

Phelps Dodge claims that the Blackfoot mine will create 390 jobs for 10 to 15 years. But many more jobs than that, as well as family farms and ranches downstream, will be threatened. The Blackfoot is the life's blood of the region and the economic heart of recreational tourism, the most lucrative and stable industry in the state.

Gold mining, by contrast, is of little economic benefit to the state. But it is of great benefit to mining companies, thanks to the 1872 Mining Law, under which companies can stake claims on Federal land for no more than $5 an acre. They also pay no royalties on the billions of dollars worth of minerals they mine each year. The Canadian-owned American Barrick Resources, for example, paid $9,765 for 1,949 acres in Elko, Nev., in 1994 and is expected to mine $10 billion worth of gold there.

Already, some 50 billion tons of waste from old mines are scattered around the country, and mining has ruined more than 12,000 miles of rivers and streams and 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs. Estimates of cleanup costs for our half million abandoned mine sites range from $33 billion to $71 billion.

State laws are at least as lax as Federal law. Montana, for instance, has never refused to grant a permit for mining on state land. Though the proposed Phelps Dodge mine would be on state land, the property borders national forests, and the company's long-range plans include huge expansions on Federal land. Phelps Dodge and other corporations hold hundreds of claims on Federal land in the Blackfoot watershed.

Last year's outcry over a proposed mine on the borders of Yellowstone Park inspired the
Clinton Administration to propose a buyout of the claim held by Crown Butte, a subsidiary of the Canadian conglomerate Noranda Inc. Because of the 1872 law, President Clinton in scrambling to find $65 million worth of public property to give to the company. Yet there are another 6,000 mining claims on land in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

It's time for Congress and state lawmakers to ignore mining lobbyists and reform a corporate welfare program that devastates our land, water, wildlife and regional economies.

David James Duncan is the author of the novels "The Brothers K" and "The River Why."

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