Mining takes another hit


Mining takes another hit

In a small second-floor office in downtown Helena, Mont., a dozen people held a sort of vigil on this chilly election night. They'd brought a television and rigged it with rabbit ears earlier in the day, and tuned the radio to the local public radio station. There, in the Montana Environmental Information Center office, the 25-year-old nerve center for battles against the mining industry, environmentalists were hoping to hear that they'd won the big one: Initiative 137. It would forever change mining in Montana by banning new cyanide heap-leach gold mines.

"We felt cautiously optimistic, but we definitely were not feeling completely confident," admits MEIC staffer Bonnie Gestring.

Just 13 days earlier, a federal judge overturned a two-year-old measure known as I-125, which had kept corporate interests such as the Montana Mining Association from campaigning on statewide initiatives. The court agreed with the mining industry plaintiffs that the initiative unfairly restricted a corporation's right to free speech.

And although every poll taken in Montana prior to Nov. 3 showed voters supported the anti-mining initiative, environmentalists watched their support erode once the federal court let the mining industry jump onto the campaign trail.

Nevertheless, environmentalists won I-137 - spending $60,000 in the process - despite the mining industry's last-minute $80,000 media blitz.

The victory may be short-lived, however; the mining association filed another lawsuit in federal court Nov. 4, on grounds that it wasn't allowed to campaign for most of the race.

Even if I-137 is overturned, mining seems on the skids in Montana: "Oh, God, it's plummeted," laments Robin McCulloch, a mining engineer at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology. "And it's looking worse."

He points to the last decade's drop in mineral explorations in the state: In 1988, 56 companies spent $28.6 million searching the state for minerals such as gold and silver. Ten years later, just eight companies spent less than $500,000. The decline isn't universal in the West: In Nevada, the mining industry poured $125 million into mineral exploration last year. The disappearance of mining companies in Montana is in part due to miserably low gold prices, but McCulloch says environmental opposition has made mining in Montana risky.

"The overall effect," McCulloch concedes, "is the environmentalists are winning."

" Dustin Solberg

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