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HELENA - The Montana Tunnels gold mine near Clancy temporarily laid off 41 employees Thursday. The announcement follows the dismissal of 20 other temporary employees who were laid off over the last month, bringing the total number of idled workers at the mine to 61.

Wade Bristol, vice president of operations for Apollo Gold, which owns the mine, said the layoff is only temporary and the dismissed workers will likely be called back to the mine by July of August.

"We still have 145 permanent employees up at the mine site," he said.

The 41 employees laid off Thursday will continue to receive their health insurance during the time they are not employed. The temporary workers laid off recently will not receive any benefits.

Bristol said the layoff, while not necessarily planned, was not unexpected either. The Montana Tunnels mine was once owned by Pegasus Gold, which filed for bankruptcy in 1998. Apollo acquired the mine during the Pegasus bankruptcy proceedings. At that time, Bristol said, the mine was nearing the end of its life.

But Apollo had plans to expand the mine's open pit and dig deeper for ore containing gold, zinc, silver and lead.

In the last year and a half, he said, the company has spent $20 million expanding the pit and moving enormous piles of waste rock to form the new pit walls. That's what the 61 laid off employees were doing, Bristol said.

Now, theyíve decided to slow down on what he called "waste stripping" or moving waste rock in the expansion, and focus more on mining ore.

"That's the point we're at right now," he said. "We thought it would be better for the company if we curtailed the stripping for a while."

The mine produces gold and zinc primarily, but also lead and silver. The ore is mined and milled in Montana and shipped by rail to British Columbia, where it is smelted.

Bristol said he expects waste stripping to begin again toward the end of the summer and the company will again need the 61 employees it laid off over the last month.

Bristol said he estimates that the mine, which produces up to 80,000 ounces of gold a year, probably has another four years of life left in it. If the mine were again expanded, the company could mine for another four years.

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