Monday, February 11, 2008

Stopping the Yellowstone Gold Mine – Parallels with the Geocom-Kinross Gold Mine in Chile’s Futaleufu River Valley (Part 1)

In this series of articles we revisit the plans of Canadian mining conglomerate, Noranda Inc. to open a Gold Mine a few kilometers from Yellowstone National Park and how the project was halted by the Clinton Administration.

Congress is in a mood to abandon
the preservation of America's ecological heritage. It is therefore imperative that the Clinton Administration muster its resolve and its executive powers to block at least one monumental and irreversible environmental catastrophe. This disaster-in-waiting is a proposed gold mine in the upper reaches of Montana's Henderson Mountain, less than three miles from Yellowstone National Park.
The mine and its lethal wastes threaten not only the original crown jewel of the national park system, but one of the most beautiful and fragile wilderness areas in the country. So grave are those risks that this page suggested last year that Congress appropriate the necessary funds, about $35 million, to compensate Noranda Inc., the Canadian conglomerate that owns the site, for its exploratory expenses and then ask the company to go away.
That is still the best course of action for saving the great national park established by President Ulysses S. Grant. But it is unlikely that the Republican Congress will spend the necessary money or pay attention to various creative strategies offered by opponents of the mine. These include a proposal by Representative Bill Richardson, Democrat of New Mexico, to put the area off limits to mining by declaring it a national recreation area.

But the battle is far from lost. Under the 1872 Mining Law, the Federal Government cannot simply seize claims to which Noranda has already taken lawful title. It can, however, use existing statutes and its regulatory machinery to break Noranda's resolve. This is a company that persists in building a mine that few others want. Washington has enough legal authority, if the White House will wake up, to prevent the desecration of an American treasure by a foreign corporation.

Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency, through the Army Corps of Engineers, can prohibit development on wetlands. This is an important power because Noranda proposes to dig out 56 acres of wetlands high on the mountain. There it would build what it calls a "state of the art" impoundment site for storing acid wastes -- a deep reservoir the size of 70 football fields. Reputable geologists say that any such structure, no matter how beautifully engineered, is bound to crack at some point given the region's extreme weather and its history of earthquakes. That will send poisons directly into the surrounding watershed, which includes two of the nation's important wild rivers.
If the E.P.A. and the Corps deny Noranda the necessary permits, the company will have to look elsewhere to store its toxic material. Alternative sites could be prohibitively expensive. But even if the two agencies duck what is an obvious moral obligation, there are other weapons available.

Noranda's 200-acre mine site is in the Gallatin National Forest, which is under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Department's Forest Service. Noranda owns most of this land but does not yet have clear title to 27 acres that sit directly above a portion of the mother lode of gold, valued by Noranda at $500 million. Environmental lawyers believe that Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, following a formal request from the Forest Service, has the power under the 1976 Land Policy and Management Act to take permanent title to these acres on behalf of the Federal Government.

If these experts are right, then the Forest Service should promptly ask Mr. Babbitt to declare these acres off limits and the Secretary should rapidly comply. Deprived of some of its potential riches, Noranda might fold its tent.

Two environmental groups -- American Rivers and Trout Unlimited -- have suggested yet another approach to those pivotal 27 acres. They argue that a close reading of the 1872 Mining Law and a handful of court cases suggest that Mr. Babbitt can deny Noranda's claim if he can show that the land has greater value in an undisturbed state than it does as a mine. They also argue that even the $500 million in estimated deposits cannot begin to compare to the ecological and recreational values of Yellowstone and its adjoining ecosystem.

Mr. Babbitt may have trouble quantifying those values, but of course American Rivers and Trout Unlimited are right. The numbers are not important. As a nation, we have to draw a line and announce that some places are simply too valuable and too sacred to our history to be put at risk.

Here is the full story originally published on March 27, 1995.