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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 email@example.com.