ELY - The story of how citizens stopped a gold mine near Yellowstone National Park held a large group spellbound here last week. Mike Clark, the former executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, spoke at Vermilion Community College under the auspices of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness’s Sigurd Olson Lecture Series.
His tour includes St. Catherine University, Macalester College, the University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota-Duluth, and University of Wisconsin-Superior.
Wyoming has a long history of mining, but the mines surrounding Yellowstone closed in the mid-1950s, to be replaced by “a vibrant tourism economy,” Clark said. Then, 30 years later, the Canadian corporation Noranda, operating through the U.S. corporation, Crown Butte, began to explore for gold three miles from the northeast corner of Yellowstone and found “the mother lode.” Large copper deposits were also discovered.
According to Clark, the locals opposed the mine and fought it for a decade. The area, at an elevation of 9,000 feet, contains the headwaters of three rivers that flow in different directions. Clark said gold mining produces vast amounts of waste rock. He said that it takes enough ore to fill a high school gymnasium to make one wedding band. When exposed to air and water, those tailings create sulfuric acid runoff.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition formed four teams to spearhead opposition to the mine: economic, legal, science, and media, Clark said. They raised $2 million over ten years and hired experts. They were able to get the attention of President Clinton and the United Nations because of the iconic status of Yellowstone National Park.
“It didn’t help Crown Butte that they began digging without having the proper permits, were sued by multiple groups, and had to pay big fines,” he said. “The amazing outcome was that the publicity campaign caused Crown Butte to have second thoughts about going in. Behind the scenes, the company said, ‘Pay us what we’ve spent so far and we’ll leave.’”
The Clinton administration agreed to urge Congress to appropriate the money if Crown Butte was willing to walk away. In 1996, Congress appropriated $65 million for the buyout. Crown Butte basically told their stockholders, according to Clark, “We didn’t make you a mine, but we didn’t lose your money either.” They also created a $22 million fund to clean up what had been left behind by past mining operations.
Clark was clear that he is not against mining. He said, “We have to have these metals, but in some places, mining is not the thing to do.” The coalition never meant to harm the company, he said. “Mining jobs pay well, but some places are just not appropriate,” citing the water-rich Ely area. “We have to think 50, 100, or more years ahead. Americans don’t know how to deal with forever.” While he realizes there are always trade-offs, the public has to have a voice in the process of developing on or near public lands.
Clark spoke about rural America from his experiences in Appalachia and other areas. He said it’s largely economically depressed except for bright spots such as some mining towns, energy boom areas, and places near federal land where there’s “an airport, snow, and trout. U.S. Forest lands have many positive impacts. If these places are allowed to bloom, surrounding private lands increase in value. As our population grows, there is more pressure on wild places. How do we take care of these wild places that are left?” he asked.
When he was asked to speak more about sulfide rock waste producing sulfuric acid at other mines, he said that most former hard rock mines are still polluting. The copper mine pit in Butte, Mont., is the largest Superfund site in the country. The open pit is filling up, and no one knows what they will do when it overflows.
Warren Johnson of Ely said, “We are a mining district here. We can go back and find baseline data back to 1950. It somehow has to work. Can’t we in a mining community come to a result?” Clark said, “I do not know of any mine in the world mining sulfides where it hasn’t polluted. The burden of proof has to be with the mining company. I don’t know if it can be done.” He also said that government agencies often don’t have the resources or the will to enforce regulations.
Nancy McReady asked about recent technology that could mitigate pollution. Clark acknowledged that technology is much better, mining is safer, and the life of underground miners has improved a lot in the U.S. Clark has worked with underground coal miners in Appalachia for decades. McReady pointed out the Stillwater mine in Montana, where citizens and the mine have created a “good neighbor agreement” where the company has agreed in good faith to clean up after itself. She said it is “a good mine” and that PolyMet’s closed system is similar. Clark said that he doesn’t know about that.
Elton Brown asked, “Why buy the company out with a ton of public money?” Clark said the government wanted control of the ore body, to prevent future threats. Now the mineral rights are not owned by any private persons.
After several other comments, Clark said, “This is the kind of dialogue you have to have.”