Nearly a decade ago, mining company Kennecott Utah Copper began sniffing around the Blackfoot Valley hoping to gauge the potential for mineral development in the Garnet Mountains south of Potomac. That interest has since turned into exploration, with Kennecott’s parent company—multinational metals corporation Rio Tinto—drilling three holes at a spot called Copper Cliff last summer. The grades of copper, gold and silver in those core samples were enticing enough that Rio Tinto is back for more in 2014, with plans to drill six more holes along Union Creek starting this month.
“Just the fact that we’re back doing another round of drilling shows that we’ve gotten some kind of encouragement,” says Rio Tinto exploration manager Russ Franklin. The company even moved its core-cutting facility from Missoula to Potomac, creating about three contracting jobs in the process.
However, Franklin and Rio Tinto communities manager Matt Jeschke are quick to temper any optimism with a heavy dose of reality. The odds of the Copper Cliff exploration actually going anywhere are “very much against us,” Jeschke says. Only about 1 percent of such projects become actual mining operations, he adds, “and even the ones that do often take 12 to 20 years or more to go from exploration to actual production.”
That hasn’t stopped groups like the Clark Fork Coalition from keeping a close watch on Rio Tinto’s activity. The nonprofit Blackfoot Challenge has even hosted a string of public meetings since 2012, giving Rio Tinto an opportunity to update locals on the project’s progress—and giving locals an opportunity to raise questions and concerns. Those meetings started out strong, says Blackfoot Challenge outreach coordinator Sara Schmidt. She estimates 60 people attended the first one. That number dropped to about 20 at the latest meeting in January, most likely, Schmidt believes, because of the slow pace of the exploratory phase.
“I think some people are a little wary that they’re even here, and I think some people are more just interested in seeing what could develop,” Schmidt says. “It’s hard because it’s so early in the process, we don’t really know what—if anything—is going to happen.”
Jeschke doubts locals will notice any increase in activity this summer. The real uptick would come if the project moved on to the next phase, an order of magnitude that takes a rigorous look at the true mine potential of the area. Jeschke says best case scenario, that will happen in 2015, but more likely in two or three years.