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WHITEHALL - Strong gold prices are making it profitable to keep the Golden Sunlight Mine here open through 2015, company officials said.

The mine had been slated to close this year, but general manager Tim Dimock said with gold prices hovering around $900 an ounce, the company plans to expand the pit and produce an additional 400,000 ounces of gold.

"With the higher price of metal, we're able to pay more to get at the ore," Dimock said. "We can continue to mine the same deposit we've been mining for the last 25 years."

Golden Sunlight, which is owned by the Canadian company Barrick Gold Corp., opened in 1983.

Dimock said with the surge in gold prices, the company plans to expand the open pit mine into an area that was buried with tailings years ago. It will take several years for the tailings to be removed, so actual recovery of the ore is years away.

Officials with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Bureau of Land Management in February approved the mine expansion. The plan calls for 5 acres of ground disturbance west of the pit; with it being excavated about 125 feet deeper and having 53 million tons of waste rock removed.

The new plan is no larger than the original pit that was approved by the state over a decade ago, said Herb Rolfes, operations permit section supervisor with DEQ's environmental management bureau.

"They had looked at a much larger mine than they actually went forward with," he said. "They're just kind of doing what they originally said they were going to do."

The company plans to spend $130 million to continue the mine, refurbish the mill, buy some new equipment and make other upgrades.

The mill will shut down for a few years while the overburden is removed, but mill workers will have the option of switching to work in the open pit area, Dimock said.

Golden Sunlight employs 138 people and Dimock said the expansion will allow the company to hire an additional 20 employees.

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