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Heap Leach – Heap Bad

Montana voters have been very, very clear on cyanide heap-leach mining. We voted to ban the practice with I-137 in 1998. Following passage of that initiative, Canyon Resources corporation went on a lawsuit binge, suing everyone they could find. They lost in state courts, federal courts, the Montana Supreme Court and even in the U.S. Supreme Court. When legal avenues failed, they even backed a repeal initiative, I-147, in 2004. When that ploy failed, they went back to suing the state.

Cyanide heap leaching is an ancient process to extract metals from ore. Basically, you crush the ore, throw it in a pit and spray cyanide over it until you dissolve the metals. The process can take several months and has been used to extract gold from Montana rocks since the gold rush days. It’s cheaper than other, more environmentally-friendly recovery processes and there lies the rub. Heap leaching can also be a big problem once (not if) the cyanide escapes the containment pit. A teaspoon of 2% cyanide solution can kill a healthy adult.

In the last 25 years, the major causes of cyanide releases into the environment from mining have been tailings-dam mishaps (76%), pipeline failures (18%), and transportation accidents (6%). Spills have occurred in so many places, and for such a variety of reasons, as to suggest that there is no way to ensure safe transport and use of cyanide in mining.

In Montana we have had many examples of the effect of cyanide mining on the environment.

At Zortman Landusky, over a dozen cyanide releases have occurred — including 50,000 gallons spilled into Alder Gulch contaminating a community water supply.

At Golden Sunlight, 19 million gallons of cyanide solution leaked when a tailings pipeline failed. Four domestic wells and a well at the veterinary clinic were contaminated. Golden Sunlight was sued by neighboring landowners. The company eventually bought out the landowners.

At the Golden Maple Mine, a cyanide leak occurred with one stock watering spring and one domestic well affected. Two cows killed by drinking contaminated water.

The Beal Mountain mine closed in 1998. Discharges from the heap leach pad violated cyanide standards in the neighboring stream for 3 months in 2001, 6 months in 2002, and at least 4 months in 2003.In July 2003, the Mine was pulled into a “time critical” clean-up program by the Forest Service because conditions “present a substantial endangerment to human health and the environment.” The Forest Service and State have spent $5 million in public funds to construct a water treatment system that will have to be operated indefinitely.

Yesterday, the Montana Senate voted 29-21 to modify the cyanide ban, in effect doing an end run around the people of Montana. Under the current law, mines that were in existence in 1998 when the ban took effect are still able to use the dangerous heap leach pits. The new language would retain the ban on new heap leach mines, but would allow new mines to take their ore to another existing mine for processing by the cyanide method. Of course this would mean that there is effectively no ban on the process, only that fewer locations would be dangerously polluted by cyanide and other heavy metal contamination.

I don’t know how we can be more clear. We have voted this down, we have fought repeal in courts, we have paid millions upon millions of dollars to clean up the mess cyanide has made of Montana. And yet, our political leaders continue to take money from mining interests to bypass what we have clearly and repeatedly said. Here is the list of Senators who voted for and against SB-306. A strong rebuke should be in order. Now the bill moves to the House. You can find your representative here. Let them know that we mean what we say. We don’t want this dirty, dangerous process to continue in Montana.  You can use the handy online message form to contact your legislators. Please tell them to stop SB-306 now.

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