TROY – Tim Lindsey stood perched at the snow-fringed north portal of the Troy Mine on Mount Vernon and, with his arms raised like a Pentecostal preacher, proselytized the copper-and-silver operation’s legacy of environmental stewardship.

“I was born here. This is my favorite place on earth,” he said, marveling at the valley floor below, pristine but for the jaundiced footprint of the mill-and-tailings sites, which are set against the backdrop of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. “This is going to be here for my grandkids just like it was here when my own children were in my cradled arms. It will always be this way.”

A Troy native and the chairman of Revett Minerals, Lindsey is as proud of the mine’s environmental record as he is of its recent economic successes.

Tanking metal prices nearly forced the mine to shut down in 2009, but in the space of three years the operation has emerged stronger than ever. Revett President John Shanahan recently announced that 2011 was the best year in the company’s history, with the mine producing 1.4 million tons of ore and reporting $30 million in net cash. In 2012, first-quarter results showed that net cash made was $7.5 million before capital expenditures – a 135 percent increase over the first quarter in 2011.

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A critical economic engine in the region, the mine is one of the largest local employers and offers 195 of the highest-paying jobs in Lincoln County. The lion’s share of the work force has roots in either Troy or Libby and a stake in the communities, and takes home a payroll of about $14 million annually.

But record profits and economic stimulus are just one measure of the mine’s success, Lindsey says. As stressful as business was in 2008, when the mine was on the brink of a closure, the chairman would lose a lot more sleep if he was anything less than confident that the mine’s footprint will one day return to its natural state.

“We’re proud to present the mine from rocks to tails because it’s all good. And I’ll go to my grave proud to have been associated with it,” he said. “I made a promise to myself that we’re not going to screw this up. In terms of environmental stewardship, we fully intend to go beyond compliance.”

First opened in 1981, the Troy Mine had an expected 15-year lifespan but was shuttered by ASARCO in 1993 amid low metals prices. Revett purchased the stake and reopened production in December 2004, anticipating four years of play before the copper-and-silver seam was exhausted.

At the beginning of this year, Revett predicted the existing tunnels beneath Mount Vernon have seven years of life left, and as exploration continues mine officials anticipate they will identify more extractable copper-and-silver beds.

“We’re very confident that we can add to our reserves, which is huge because we can continue to utilize the existing infrastructure,” said Doug Miller, vice president of operations at the mine.

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Another project to add to the company’s reserves, the proposed Rock Creek Mine in nearby Sanders County, south of the Troy Mine and north of Noxon, remains tied up in the courts. With an entrance near the wilderness boundary and mine shafts tunneling into the protected lands, a coalition of environmental groups has long sought to block the project.

If approved, it is anticipated the Rock Creek Mine would employ almost 300 people and produce twice the amount of copper and silver as the Troy Mine, yielding an estimated 10,000 tons of ore per day.

Shanahan said Revett’s operation of the Troy Mine 35 road miles from Rock Creek represents “a showcase for clean and responsible development.” The mining techniques used at Troy are similar to those at the proposed Rock Creek mine, he said, and so is the geology of the silver and copper deposits.

Miller said the Rock Creek Mine would come with an expected lifespan of 35 years. It would also come with several miles of road into the Cabinets, as well as rail stations, pipelines, power lines, a tailings treatment plant and other infrastructure on more than 1,500 acres.

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Despite Lindsey’s conviction in environmentally responsible development at the Troy site, and the depiction of Rock Creek as an environmental analogue, the project has come under fire for years as downstream residents worry about river pollution. Environmental groups have claimed that the underground mine could cause wilderness lakes to drain and have raised concerns about protected bull trout and grizzly bears.

Shanahan and other Revett executives expected to encounter obstacles in developing Rock Creek given the legacy of hard-rock mining. But they staunchly defend their plans, saying mitigation measures and environmental safeguards will actually improve trout and bear habitat, citing water monitoring data and environmental studies dating as far back as the mine proposal’s origins in 1987.

“We want to be an environmentally responsible operation,” he said. “We are part of the mining community, sure, but we like to think that we do things a little different. The Troy operation is the least environmentally harmful mine. It’s just not like other mining operations. Everything can’t be lumped under the same banner, and Rock Creek is going to be the same.”

At the tailings facility, a 90-acre raised plateau where the mine tails are impounded, Lindsey cups a handful of what he calls “environmentally benign beach sand.” All around him, the pale-brown tailings, which were seeded two weeks earlier as part of the mine’s ongoing reclamation plan, bristle with a faint stubble of grass.

“This is where the mine is going to go to sleep, and it will become a wildlife corridor in the valley,” Lindsey said as a flock of geese flew overhead and a pair of cow elk loped across the 30-acre tailings cell and onto an adjacent plot, where the thicket of grass is taller and greener. “No one else could do that but us. We can leave a net positive effect and ensure this doesn’t turn into 20-acre subdivisions.”

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The impoundment site is seeded with barley to tack down the tailings, said mill manager Steve Lloyd, who oversees the extraction process that separates the crushed mine tails from the valuable metals.

At the mine, rock is dug out from Mount Vernon and crushed and, using about 90 miles of underground roads, carried above ground on haul trucks. The rock is then dumped into a series of colossal rock tumblers that pulverize it to the consistency of talcum powder, and that powder is suspended in bubbling pools of oxygenated water, where the metals report to the frothy surface and are physically separated from the rock. The tailings material, what Lindsey calls the “environmentally benign beach sand,” is then piped seven miles downhill to the impoundment area.

Even though no chemicals are used, the plateau of tailings is surrounded with water-quality monitoring wells that have helped gather 30 years of data on the elevated copper levels. During the lifetime of the mine (the monitoring continued during the decadelong closure) there’s been no appreciable transport of metals into the groundwater, Lindsey said.

“This is stable. It’s clean. It’s sat there for 30 years and it’s done nothing to degrade that stream,” Lindsey said, pointing to Lake Creek 500 feet away. (By comparison, the proposed tailings impoundment site at the Rock Creek Mine would sit 2,000 feet from the Clark Fork River.)

When the life of the mine draws to an end, a $12.9 million surety bond with the state Department of Environmental Quality is set aside to accomplish the final reclamation.

“I can stand here and tell you exactly what it’s going to look like at Rock Creek, because it’s the same cold, hard rock in that mountain,” he said. “And we are going to harvest it.”

A coalition of environmentalists that has long sought to block the Rock Creek Mine disputes Revett’s claims that the Troy Mine deposits serve as an accurate environmental analogue to the Rock Creek deposits.

The water resources and the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness are too valuable to gamble on a company that has only limited information about how the mine wastes from the proposed project will behave.

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But last November, a federal appeals court ruling helped Revett clear a major hurdle toward development, and reinforced arguments that the mine can operate in a manner that does not jeopardize threatened wildlife.

The opinion issued by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which determined that the proposed Rock Creek Mine will not pose significant threats to grizzly bear and bull trout habitat.

According to the opinion written by Judge Harry Pregerson, the proposed mitigation plan for grizzly bear habitat “was so robust that the Fish and Wildlife Service concluded it ‘would in fact improve conditions of the long-term over the existing conditions, ultimately promoting the recovery of the (local) grizzly bear population.’ ”

Among the mitigation requirements at Rock Creek is that Revett purchase 2,450 acres of grizzly bear habitat to be set aside from future development and managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and fund three positions for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for the life of the project.

The company already funds a bear biologist position at FWP, which Shanahan said has been critical to managing bears in the region.

“I ask myself, if we didn’t do all this who would?” Revett’s president said.

Back at the offices of the Troy Mine, Lindsey pulled a stack of photographs from his satchel that show him and his grandchildren on a backpacking trip to Cliff Lake, which the Rock Creek mine would portal 1,000 feet beneath, providing a “vertical buffer” that puts 30 percent of the ore reserves off limits, he said. The trailhead to Cliff Lake lies two miles as the crow flies from the proposed Rock Creek mine site.

“I want people to know that it will always look like this,” he said, pointing to the turquoise blue of the alpine lake. “We’re going to deliver Rock Creek, and we’re going to do it in a way that generations to come can still enjoy this wilderness.”

Flathead Valley Bureau reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@misoulian.com.

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(10) comments

theminer

No one will know that the mine is there when in operation. I encourage all of you that are against the mine to come to the Troy Mine and take a tour and see for yourself. The Troy Mine has nothing to hide. The environment will not be harmed and once the mine is complete it will be restored to its original state; nobody will ever know that there was a mine there once. All the water coming from the mine meets drinking water standards, nothing is polluted. The mine has over 20 years of data to prove this. The sand at tailings is pretty much beach sand without oceans or a lake; all the tailings sand is environmentally benign.
Rock Creek will be very similar to what is happening at the Troy Mine. All the reagents will be organic during milling and flotation; no cyanides will be used. There will be a stage two water treatment, so that the water leaving the mine will beat all drinking water standards and will have absolutely no impact on the nearby creeks. The tailings at Rock Creek will have less water than what is at Troy. This will produce a paste like substance that will provide extra stability protection and will require less water to manage it. There will be numerous buffer zones that will safeguard to protect the land surface, lakes, and waters of the Cabinet Wilderness. Traffic will not be a problem as transportation will be provided for the employees to minimize the sedimentation in the streams.
Rock Creek is going to help the local economy by employing over 300 local citizens. This is something this economy strongly needs. The local schools and businesses need the income so that we can keep the schools open and so that local businesses can stay open.
Instead of forming an uneducated opinion on how Rock Creek is going to harm the environment, look at all the facts on how it is going to benefit the environment. I encourage anyone to come to the Troy Mine and take a tour and ask the questions there; we have nothing to hide.

JPDMontana

I disagree mtbiker. This is not a "puff" piece. Maybe the reason the reporter did not talk to someone who is opposed to the mine is because he wanted to get the facts straight. It's too easy to spout negative, unfounded remarks about the mine. I suggest you go take one of the tours they provide. Ask questions and see for yourself what goes on. Form your own real opinion, and then feel free to comment. I've noticed way too many people these days forming opinions without being well informed. Don't get cought up in the hysteria.

mtbiker

What a puff piece. No attempt at balanced journalism here. Would it have been too difficult for the reporter to call anyone who is opposed to the Rock Creek mine? Would it have been too difficult for the reporter to call anyone who has concerns with the Troy mine (which has not avoided controversy in its days). Maybe the author would have asked the question about what the employees at Troy will do when the mine shuts down, in seven years? You know if the article were about a report on climate change, there would have been a call to the petroleum industry for a quote that climate change is really caused by the sun's expansion (or some similar misinformation).

mtminer77

I'm no economist and I can't really speak to the banking industry, but I work up at the Troy mine and I can tell you first hand that operations owners have no intention of destroying anything or get rich at anyone else's expense. You see, all of the employees up here are shareholders of Revett. Are we benefiting from the mine staying open and being profitable? You bet. We have 200 men and women with good paying jobs and benefits able to stay at home and raise their family in the place they love while knowing they are doing it with minimal impacts to the environment. We work to live here because we love this place, we don't live to work here--and there's a big difference. The men and women up here are proud of who we are, what we do, and all of the short and long term benefits that we are reaping from doing so. I would love to see anyone of the folks taking shots at us, the owners of Revett, actually come up to the Troy mine and take a look at how the Rock Creek project will be operated-- I guarantee they would have a different viewpoint and think twice before making uneducated remarks about people that care more about this place than they do.

Diligence

Old Farmer- that idea lost credibility about a decade ago, no offense.

MTminded

The extraction industry (mining/coal/oil) will do to the environment what the banking industry has done to the economy. If extraction and its product's end use is not environmentally sound then no amount of jobs or money makes it worthwhile. If we don't all win in the short-term we all lose in the long-term.

old farmer

Diligence needs to get a dose of reality. It is the enviro's that are making us a third world country.. Without a tax base there money will soon dry up too, unless they borrow from China. Then look at what will happen to the planet. Mining will help us all.

Diligence

And I'd bet every last red cent I own this person "common sense" is an industry insider, hoping to make millions and making empty promises that can't possibly be kept and when Rock Creek is fouled and polluted and all the fish are dead, this guy and his trophy wife will be sitting on a beach in Florida saying, "Those Montanas are the most gullible people on the earth, always trying to be nice people about everything, giving away all their treasures so fat cats like me can become very rich, ah privilege, it's good to be rich."

Diligence

Get your facts straight "common sense", the future of industry is in preservation. The extractive industries had their day in the sun and the future points to sustainablity and tourism, not ruining the last best place so a handful of men can get rich at everyone else's expense. The whole economy isn't going to "recover" by mining a small little beautiful creek in Montana. Where do you get these out of date and rediculous notions, oh ya faux news propaganda. How are we suppose to have a real conversation with ungrownup shrill people like yourself who ovbviously haven't picked up a book since high school and have no actual idea what's going on in the world? Oh poor poor victimized extractive industries, boo hoo, practically ruining the planet (which we depend on to SURVIVE mind you) so a handful of people can get very rich. Get with the 21st century "common sense". If we take everything, pollute everything, then we'll be just another desperate third world country in no time flat.

COMMON SENSE
COMMON SENSE

EnvironMENTAL groups...the bane of modern industry. One of the reasons our remaining industries are having such a hard time helping the economy recover is because they have to spend untold millions defending themselves against garbage like this. If the economy is to recover, let's get serious; TAKE OUT THE TRASH!

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