Residents and businesses in the Gardiner and Paradise valleys received another reprieve last week from the threat of a gold mine north of Yellowstone National Park.
On Sept. 1, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality denied for the second time a gold exploration application from the Crevice Mining Group LLC. Crevice, an Australian-backed company based in Spokane, Wash., is seeking a license to explore for gold on private land outside Jardine, a few miles from the park’s northern border.
In a letter of deficiency and accompanying 20 pages of comments, DEQ Small Miner and Exploration Specialist Robert Cronholm highlighted eight major problems with Crevice’s plan of operations. The problems included a lack of any preliminary geochemical testing of potential waste rock that might leach pollution; a lack of baseline water quality data to detect if mining pollutes the water later; no discussion of how the company intends to safeguard water quality; and discrepancies between the mine’s size as depicted on a map and the proposed extent of the mine.
With any development, the introduction of weeds is inevitable but wasn’t addressed much in the plan. DEQ warned that three years of weed control might not be sufficient.
DEQ wasn’t the only agency to weigh in. The Custer Gallatin National Forest was also allowed to comment, because the forest surrounds the private land where the mine is proposed and also has a few inholdings. So the mine could eventually affect groundwater and soils on Forest Service property.
For instance, Crevice said it would consider using some “inert waste rock” as road material. Because the Forest Service owns several roads in the area, Forest Service commenters questioned how Crevice would decide what rock was considered “inert,” since the area rock contains acid-producing chemicals.
All the deficiencies highlighted by DEQ are significant ones and should take months for the company to investigate properly. Installing monitoring wells and running sufficient tests in particular requires time to prepare and analyze.
In the meantime, opposition groups such as the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition might double–down on their efforts to shut down Crevice’s mining claims. That’s what they’ve been doing since Crevice first applied in October 2015 and after Crevice received its first letter of deficiency in early April.
The Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition includes more than 200 landowners and businesses from Gardiner to Livingston that depend on tourism and a healthy environment to make their living. They claim they aren't anti-mining, but they recognize that sulfide gold mines could ruin their local economy and lifestyle. The Crevice Mountain area contains multiple drainages that flow directly into the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park
Recently, the coalition appealed to both Montana’s Congressional delegation and the U.S. Forest Service to shut the mining claims down. Their yard signs claiming “Yellowstone Is More Valuable Than Gold” sprang up like knapweed in the Paradise Valley, just in time to be seen by tourists attending the National Park Service’s Centennial Celebration in Gardiner on Aug. 25.
Crevice already has a small-miner’s exemption that allows it to disturb up to 5 acres without a permit. But the company originally tried to get a permit from DEQ to dig up 20 acres under the auspices of the 5-acre exemption. DEQ pointed out that the proposal was illegal and told the company to submit a proper application.
Crevice submitted its most recent proposal just three months later. The head of Crevice Mining Group, Michael Werner, said that’s because very little was changed in the application. Based upon this most recent letter of deficiency, very little was changed in DEQ's response.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition praised the DEQ on Tuesday.
"We're pleased by the recent letter, because it means the DEQ agrees with our concerns about the inconsistencies in this exploration proposal. It also means the proposal will not move forward until Crevice addresses all the deficiencies," said Liz Purdy, Yellowstone Gateway Campaign Organizer.
That will delay Crevice’s progress for a while. But mining companies often have the upper hand due to private property rights and ancient federal mining laws. That’s the problem that mining opponents are encountering with at least four proposed mines in Montana.
The Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition is also fighting the Emigrant Mine, which is being proposed about 30 miles north of the Crevice mine. There, Lucky Minerals tried to get approval to explore both private and federal land for gold. The necessity of an environmental assessment caused Lucky Minerals to withdraw its request on federal lands for now but could still develop the private claims.
The 1872 Mining Act gives hardrock miners the right to claim federal land for mining purposes and mine without paying any royalties. It would take action by the Interior secretary, president or Congress to withdraw public minerals from mining.
Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Ryan Zinke have voiced opposition to the Emigrant Mine, but Sen. Steve Daines has not commented.
Farther north, near White Sulphur Springs, Tintina Resources is further along in the DEQ process to develop an underground copper mine that originates on private property. Tintina has met almost all of DEQ’s requirements, meaning there’s little else that opponents can do to stop the mine.
Finally, the Rock Creek Mine, another proposed copper mine near Noxon, is moving forward with little to stand in its way other than a possible water challenge.
Some have suggested that mining companies have lined their applications up now because they anticipate an easier process if certain political candidates are elected in November. But they still have to pass DEQ muster.
Or opponents of the Crevice mine could take a page out of history. Prior 1996, the New World gold mine proposed by Crown Butte Mines, a Canadian company, threatened wildlife habitat and water supplies near Cooke City and the northeast entrance of the park. After thousands of hours of negotiation and pressure from Pres. Bill Clinton and the United Nations - the U.N. placed Yellowstone on its list of “In Danger” World Heritage Sites because of the mine - Crown Butte Mines abandoned its plans in return for $65 million in federal land and other assets and created a $22.5 million fund to clean up past mining operations.