Ochenski: Pits and pendulums

I-147 backs away from the future



Canyon Resources, the Colorado mining company that wants to build a giant, open-pit, cyanide heap leach gold mine on the banks of our revered Blackfoot River, is dumping millions of dollars trying to bamboozle Montanans in the coming elections. If the company gets its way, voters will be fooled into believing that Montana’s economy needs cyanide leach gold mining and will overturn the existing cyanide ban. From all available signs, however, the pendulum of Montana’s economy has steadily swung away from the pits and toward a more diverse and stable future that counts a clean and healthful environment as its true gold.

Montanans should be wary anytime a single entity—especially a mining company—spends more than $2 million trying to influence the outcome of our elections. For nearly a century the Anaconda Company controlled the Legislature, many of the newspapers and even some of the courts, through legal and illegal campaign contributions, outright ownership and what used to be called “payola” to those who consistently sided with the company.

In return, we got Butte and Anaconda. The mining jobs in Butte paid well, grew a fabulous city, spawned millionaires by the fistful, and sent a constant stream of dollars flowing back to the East Coast mine owners. The smelter jobs in Anaconda also paid well, grew a modest city and likewise sent the profits off to out-of-state magnates.

But in 1976, ARCO bought “the Company.” In 1980, the Anaconda Smelter ceased its endless belching of toxin-laden smoke and the smeltermen got their pink slips. In 1983, Butte’s underground pumps were turned off, and the Berkeley Pit, “a mile high and a mile deep,” began to fill with toxic water.

In 1980, the Anaconda Smelter ceased its endless belching of toxin-laden smoke, the smeltermen got their pink slips, and the decline of both cities began.

The run was over. What wealth could be wrested from the earth had been taken, and only the detritus remained behind—the enormous blowing slag piles, leaking tailings ponds, tortured landscapes and the deadly water of the huge pit. Shortly after operations ceased, both Butte and Anaconda became the state’s first Superfund sites and, after preliminary investigations revealed the true extent of the massive pollution, the entire Clark Fork River from Butte to the Milltown Dam was combined to bring Montana the dubious honor of having the nation’s single largest Superfund site.

This all happened a full generation ago. Yet, as anyone who has driven the Clark Fork corridor can tell you, the Anaconda slag pile remains a blight, the Berkley Pit remains a poisonous pond, the Clark Fork River remains a severely damaged waterway, and the crumbling Milltown Dam continues to hold back millions of tons of toxic sludge washed down from the once-mighty centers of Montana’s mining industry. The fading glory, the cracking facades and the cleanup—a massive undertaking even in its abbreviated, temporary form—are all that remain.

They say the once-burnt child fears the fire. If that’s so, Montanans have very good reason to fear the reemergence of cyanide leach gold mining. While Butte and Anaconda were built on copper mining and smelting, an open pit is an open pit, regardless of what mineral you recover. Meanwhile, real-life examples of what’s left behind after cyanide leach operations shut down abound.

The Kendall Mine is owned by Canyon Resources, the same company that’s trying to buy the election on I-147. It’s been shut down for more than a decade but has yet to be fully reclaimed and continues to pollute surface and groundwater. The Beall Mountain mine, near Butte, continues to leach pollutants, poisoning the fish in the stream below. The Zortmann-Landusky mine will require water treatement “in perpetuity.” And the Golden Sunlight Mine, which continues to operate, had to buy downgradient ranches because its operations polluted the groundwater.

Meanwhile, Montana’s economy has not particularly stumbled over the decline of the mining industry. Take the recent “Gateway to Glacier” study of the Flathead’s economy, conducted by the University of Montana’s Larry Swanson, Phd., Norma Nickerson, PhD., and Jason Lathrop (online at healthycommunities).”By virtually any economic indicator, Flathead County is booming,” says the report, which cites 15,700 new jobs created in the last decade, “an increase of nearly 50 percent” with “dramatic increases in relatively high-quality employment areas such as health care, business services, construction, and new areas of manufacturing.”

The area’s population increased by 26 percent between 1990 and 2000, “led by an influx of new residents.” Those new residents, who are primarily Baby Boomers between 40 and 60 who “feel comfortable enough financially to live where they want,” are “bringing with them jobs, income, or the capital to start new businesses.” The study found “nearly 1,000 new businesses were established in the last decade,” “unemployment rates are the lowest in three decades,” and “per capita income rose by 13 percent in the last decade” resulting in a “median income sharply increased, erasing the losses in the previous decade.”

And why are people moving to the Flathead? Simply put, it’s not to work in cyanide heap leach mines. “Surveys and interviews with Flathead County residents, visitors, and business leaders confirm that the valley’s chief appeal is the place itself: The small-town, friendly atmosphere, access to the outdoors and recreational opportunities, scenic beauty, clean water, wildlife, and the open, natural setting,” says the study. As Susan Burch, past chairwoman of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce wrote: “Let’s not squander our resources. Our environment, our economy, and our community are treasures we can’t afford to waste.”

Burch is right. The same thing that’s going on in the Flathead is going on in the Bitterroot, Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, the Paradise Valley and Red Lodge. The places that aren’t growing are those still struggling with the mining pollution of the past.

Montana’s economic pendulum has swung away from a future of polluting pits. Montanans know this is true because we see it every day with our own eyes. Come Nov. 2, we should reject I-147 and leave the failed mining economies where they belong—in our past.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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