Mining in Montana was one of the top stories of 2013, with the possible opening of a copper mine at the headwaters of the famed Smith River and the closure of a historic gold mine in Marysville.
While Tintina Alaska Exploration Inc. is seeking a permit for the Black Butte Mine northeast of White Sulphur Springs, the Canadian company in charge of the Drumlummon Mine at the base of Marysville pulled up stakes and left town.
Earlier this year, the state Department of Environmental Quality released a draft Environmental Assessment saying it has determined that Tintina will be able to mitigate any possible impacts from its ongoing exploration. That includes the possibility that about 20 percent to 30 percent of the rocks removed could generate acid runoff; sulfide materials in waste rock react with water and oxygen to produce sulfuric acid.
The draft EA, which was released for public comment in July, hasn’t been finalized yet.
But the Canadian-based company has been drilling core samples in a field northeast of White Sulphur Springs for about three years at a cost of about $18 million. Earlier this year, Tintina applied for a permit for a “decline,” which will let it get a better look at whether it’s economically feasible to mine for copper there. Basically, the decline is a 5,200-foot-long ramp that goes underground. It will be 18 feet high and 18 feet wide on about 12,000 acres of public and private lands along U.S. Highway 89.
The company can pull out 10,000 tons for bulk sampling for metallurgical testing.
Based on core samples, Tintina forecast that what it calls the “Johnny Lee deposit” could produce a single copper concentrate containing an average of 47 million pounds of payable metal per year during a 14-year mine life. That translates to 658 million pounds of copper, which at $3 per pound, would have a value of $1.97 billion.
Residents in the small town of White Sulphur Springs generally support the mine, saying it would provide sorely needed economic development. Others, however, have voiced concerns that the acid mine runoff could find its way into nearby Sheep Creek, which flows into the Smith River.
The lure of money from metal wasn’t enough, however, for the owners of the Drumlummon, which laid off about 100 employees in June after gold dropped from a high of $1,888 per ounce in August 2011 to $1,431 per ounce in April. It’s currently trading for $1,239 per ounce after a relatively steady decline in 2013.
In a letter to employees, Bob Taylor, the chief operating officer of U.S. Silver & Gold, wrote that given the gold market conditions, the Drumlummon mine wasn’t economically viable.
Irish immigrant Tommy Cruse discovered gold near Marysville in the 1870s, and the Drumlummon mine made him one of the richest men in Montana. Prior to the recent efforts, work stopped at the mine in 1953 and water flooded the lower levels.
With the newest mining efforts, the company pumped thousands of gallons of water from the mine’s lower reaches and removed arsenic from it, then discharged it outside the mine. It managed to lower the water level from about 400 feet down to 800 feet and explore the deeper sections. The company spent more than $10 million blasting new tunnels and reinforcing ancient ones, while chasing old and new veins it believes hold $100 million in gold and silver.
In December 2011, the company filed paperwork with the state seeking an operating permit, which is a step up from the small miner’s exclusion permit under which it was conducting mining activities. After the state responded with a lengthy list of additional questions, the forward movement on the permitting request ground to a halt.
The mine was both a blessing and a boondoggle to Lewis and Clark County and its residents. While many people appreciated the economic boost and good wages paying about $80,000 annually, others said the mine operated with blatant disregard for Marysville residents.