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AGRICULTURE & BUSINESS

Future of Mining

Berkeley Pit Property of the Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives. Material may be protected by copyright law (Title 17 U.S. Code).

In 1955, Butte's first large-scale open-pit mine, the Berkeley Pit, was constructed on "the hill." The project was discontinued in 1982 after the extraction of 1.5 billion tons of ore. The copper removed from that mine, collected, would be enough to pave a four-lane freeway six inches deep and 88 miles long. Gold from the pit would form a cube, five feet on an edge. Other metals could add an additional 55 miles to the copper road. The Berkeley Pit is 1,780 feet deep.

During operation, groundwater was continually pumped from the mine so that miners could reach the ore. Today, groundwater is filling that hole again and has become the Berkeley Pit Lake. This water is highly toxic because massive amounts of heavy metals still line the pit and are continually leached into the water table. During heavy rains water held back by Milltown Dam, water that has run through Butte's slagheaps, is reported as being less potable than raw sewage. Unless a way is found to safely treat and remove this water from the Pit, scientists believe that it will spill out into the Silver Bow drainage between the years 2010 and 2020.

Researchers are looking into phytoremediation, the process of using living material like plants, algae, and bacteria to clean up the Pit. This research will aid the reclamation projects of other cleanup sites. For now, the Berkeley Pit remains the Environmental Protection Agency's largest Superfund site in the country. That means that the Federal Government has deemed the Berkeley Pit the number one environmental hazard facing our nation today.

For more than a century, miners, mining, and the mining industry have brought untold wealth and sophistication to Montana. The Mining Law of 1872 still allows speculators to remove minerals from public lands for just a small fee. If not for mining, Montana would not have been settled for years later than it actually was. But in those days, people did not understand the long-term impacts mining practices could have on the land. The fees imposed by the 1872 law don't come close to compensating the public for the use, damage, or even loss of our land.

Since 1979, cyanide heap-leach mining has become the predominant method for extracting precious metals from our state. Cyanide, a toxic chemical, is sprayed or poured over piles of ore in huge quantities. Metals are then dissolved in cyanide which is later distilled, leaving behind pure metals. In the last twenty years more "precious" metal has been taken from the earth than during the entire previous century. Just a teaspoonful of two-percent cyanide solution can kill a human adult, not to mention a bird or a fish.

The future of mining remains unclear. Many families still depend on the profits which mining and related industries bring to the state. However, heap-leach mining does not require nearly as many workers as in days past. Montana's largest mine only employs around 750 people. Compared to the tens of thousands once employed in the state, mining is not the force it once was. Some people argue that we no longer need to remove minerals from the earth in such large quantities. We don't mint silver coins anymore. New technologies are easing some demand for copper wire. Jewelry is recognized as a non-essential luxury.

These people who oppose large-scale hard-rock mining have begun to form citizen action networks. They mean to educate the public on the potential consequences of mining in the modern era. They are willing to trade in their ornamental jewelry and to flip on a few less light switches because they believe that a safe, clean, and natural habitat is Montana's most precious resource; more precious even than gold.

Mining will not end here. Laws and popular support will force the industry to find new methods for handling their mines and mine tailings. In 1998, Montana voters supported "Initiative 137," banning the use of cyanide leaching in the state, though the law has yet to take full effect. Turkey is the only country outside the United States which has restricted the use of Cyanide in mining processes. Back in 1994, after a court ruling which pressured certain mines to become a little more environmentally sensitive, the director of the Montana Environmental Information Center stated, "The decision means you fill up a hole when you get through mining. There will be no more Berkeley Pits.

Visit montanakids.com's History and Prehistory section to read more about gold mining.

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