Paradise Valley mine exploration worries area residents, anglers

A Canadian company wants to mine the Treasure State, but the sites it wants to develop are next to another treasure: Yellowstone National Park. That’s raised concerns for some, especially those that live and work on the Yellowstone River.

For the next week, the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality are requesting public input on a proposal to explore the gold deposits in the mountains southeast of Emigrant and Chico Hot Springs in the Paradise Valley.

To raise awareness, the Yellowstone Bend Citizens Council, the Park County Environmental Council and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition have organized a series of public meetings, including one last week in Emigrant and another this Thursday evening at the Livingston Elks Lodge.

“They were expecting about 10 people at the Emigrant meeting and got 100. Everyone is asking the same questions,” said Emigrant resident and avid fly-fisherman Jesse Logan. “If you read (Lucky Minerals’) full proposal, they’re taking a long-term view, planning on both exploration and development. I don’t know how serious to take this, but I’m really concerned that this is happening on a direct tributary of the Yellowstone River.”

Lucky Minerals, Inc., a young Canadian company, plans on spending $2.5 million to drill up to 30 test holes about 1,000 to 2,000 feet deep on a dozen Forest Service mining claims on either side of Emigrant Creek where it flows out of the Absaroka Mountains and the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness.

Two sites are within the North Absaroka inventoried roadless area, and four lie on the west slope of Emigrant Peak.

To avoid building roads to three sites on the slopes of DUV Ridge to the east of Emigrant Creek, the company plans to use helicopters to bring gear in, much as Kennecott did when it probed the same area in 1990.

According to its technical report, Lucky Minerals is hoping that at least one of the drill holes will yield enough minerals to support the development of one or more gold, silver, copper or molybdenum mines over a 6-square-mile area.

It’s not a stretch, because the area, known as the Emigrant Mining District has been successfully mined since the 1870s. Placer miners removed about 40,000 ounces of gold between 1864 and 1935.

Kennecott was the last company to be active in the area. While they did find gold and copper, there wasn’t enough to support a profitable mine.

Lucky Minerals isn’t a large mining company. Like Tintina Resources, it’s a small exploration company, many of which focus only on finding mineral deposits and then selling them to larger mining companies to develop.

It’s a trend that is on the rise. Last July, the Financial Press reported that as gold markets are beginning to rebound, “risk-averse investors are gravitating to junior explorers with low political risk, near-surface assets and aggressive drill programs close to existing mines.”

GYC executive director Caroline Byrd said what bits of gold there are are scattered throughout the rock, which has made it unprofitable until new techniques have been developed.

If the mine is developed, miners would have to remove massive amounts of ore from an open pit mine and ship it to a mill - most likely the Barrick Golden Sunlight mill near Whitehall - for processing.

The ore contains sulfides that produce sulfuric acid when it comes into contact with water. A similar situation has contaminated the groundwater around the Zortman Landusky gold mine near Fort Belknap.

Montanans voted to ban cyanide leach mining but spill of toxic tailings or the sulfuric acid byproduct could still affect the productivity of one of Montana’s most popular trout streams.

“The impact on the land would be huge but would also affect the water,” Byrd said. “This would be gold just for jewelry, and we have all the gold we need from recycling. This is different than mines like the Stillwater Mine that produces strategically important metals.”

Under the 1872 Mining Act, the Forest Service must allow companies to explore mineral claims, but the agency can regulate the exploration activities to minimize effects on public land resources, such as water or wildlife.

So the Forest Service could approve the exploration permits through the use of a categorical exclusion, which streamlines permit approval by bypassing public participation requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act as long as permit activities don't affect the human environment.

Lucky Minerals is depending on a initial categorical exclusion permit for Phase 1 of a multi-phase operation. Its March 2015 report states, “The initial stage involves drilling … covered by a low level: Category Exclusion permit (submitted January 2015). While this work is being performed, an application will be made for road access construction and additional drilling locations that would be covered by an Environmental Assessment program,“

But enough public interest and concern could prompt the Forest Service to upgrade its permit process to an environmental assessment or impact study with public comment. That’s what the three groups are asking for.

They point out that the area is home to endangered species, including grizzly bears and possibly lynx. Plus development would degrade a inventoried roadless area and possibly other cultural and archeological sites.

Montana DEQ is involved because Lucky Minerals has purchased claims on private land in the area. DEQ also could conduct a simple checklist analysis without public comment but the groups are pushing for the inclusion of public input.

Some people have drawn parallels between the Lucky Minerals proposal and the Tintina exploration of copper deposits along a tributary of the Smith River. But one difference is that Tintina is working on private land.

Still the reaction of anglers, floaters, sportsmen and environmental groups to the mines in each case is similar.

“If (DEQ) thinks they have a mess on their hands with the Smith River, they know that a mine on the Yellowstone is a whole different level. We in Montana love the Smith, but the world loves Yellowstone,” Byrd said.

The Thursday public meeting at the Livingston Elks Lodge, 103 South 2nd St., begins at 6 p.m.

Otherwise, send your comments (email, written or verbal) to Peter Werner, Project Lead, Custer Gallatin National Forest Supervisor’s Office or by fax to (406) 587-6758. Also send a copy to Warren McCullough, Hard Rock Mining Bureau Chief at the DEQ: . Comments will be accepted up to July 15th, 2015.  Reference the Emigrant - Lucky Minerals Exploratory Drilling Proposal.