Montana Viewpoint

September 20, 2004

A couple of nights ago I attended a small presentation on the benefits of I-147, a ballot initiative that would repeal the 1998 citizen enacted ban on the use of cyanide in open pit gold and silver mining. The initiative that banned cyanide use (I-137) resulted from local and statewide opposition to a massive gold mine proposed near Lincoln, Montana, at the headwaters of the Blackfoot River

Cyanide heap leaching is an economical way to remove gold from low grade ore deposits such as the one at the Seven-up Pete ore body near Lincoln. The process is economically attractive because the ore doesn’t need to be finely crushed to extract the gold, and crushing is an expensive process.

Cyanide has been commonly used since the 1970s in the process of extracting gold from ore. When cyanide is applied to the ore in a liquid solution it will attach to the gold molecules, even inside a piece of ore. In heap leaching a large leak-proof pond is constructed to contain the ore and the solution. Ore is put into the pit and the cyanide solution is applied by sprinkler or drip irrigation. As the solution travels through the ore, it removes the gold and settles to the bottom of the pond where it is collected. Further processing separates the gold from the cyanide. All in all it’s a pretty neat trick.

Canyon Resources, which owns the Seven-up Pete project, wants to mine it, and they want to use the cyanide heap leach method to do it. But to do that, the law has to be changed to lift the ban, and a pro-mining Republican state government has been reluctant to accommodate them. Shortly after passage of I-137, a bill was introduced in the 1999 Legislature that would have overturned I-137 and put the issue back on the ballot in the 2000 election, but it failed to pass. Nothing was done by the 2001 Legislature, and a bill to repeal the measure was withdrawn by the Democratic sponsor in the 2003 legislative session.

Since there are two ways to make law—the legislative act and the citizen initiative—Canyon Resources and a group called "Miners, Merchants, and Montanans for Jobs and Economic Prosperity" looked to the initiative process to repeal the ban.

>This is ironic, because the citizen initiative method of passing laws was originally developed in the early 20th century as a way to pass legislation that the corporate-run legislatures wouldn’t pass. In Montana it was the Amalgamated Copper Company (later the Anaconda Company) and the Montana Power Company that dominated the Legislature. Now, a corporation is using the initiative process to rewrite the law, with Canyon Resources spending $1.3 million to date on I-147.

My view is that there is virtually no dangerous material that can’t be handled in a way that protects the public health and safety. There is also no question that mining can be done in a manner consistent with environmental concerns. Recently the giant Stillwater Mine in Columbus, Montana, received an award from the  Montana Environmental Information Center. However, not every mining company is as responsible to the community as Stillwater.

Laws don’t happen in a vacuum. They are created in response to a perceived problem, and the extensive pollution that was created by mining in Butte and Anaconda was the impetus for  Montana’s environmental laws. Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality was created to enforce them.

For me there are two issues involved: the environmental issue and the use of the corporate pocketbook to pass laws.

In the environmental question the issue is between a blanket condemnation of a process that uses a common, but potentially highly toxic substance if handled improperly and an industry with a past history of polluting saying, “trust us.” This is further compounded by an enforcement agency made ineffective through legislative under-funding.

I worry about America relying on other nations with far less environmental protection in place for our natural resources and I believe that we need to return to a rational way of making use of the wealth of timber and minerals that we possess. This is not just a matter of ensuring better worldwide environmental protection; more importantly it’s a matter of national security. Because of that, I voted against I-137 in 1998.

However, I am not supportive of a single corporation using its political or monetary power to make laws that benefit that corporation, and pretty much only that corporation. On the whole, that abuse of corporate power, rather than the safety of the process or the responsibility of the industry, will decide the way I vote on I-147; and until I can see a greater benefit for the state of Montana than for Canyon Resources, I am inclined to vote against it.


Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620