SPOKANE, Wash. - Montana's law prohibiting new open-pit mines that use cyanide to process gold and silver ore is the opening salvo in a nationwide war against mining, a mining company executive said Thursday.
Nonsense, said a spokeswoman for the Montana Environmental Information Center, which sponsored Initiative 137 in 1998.
Richard H. De Voto, president of Canyon Resources Corp., of Golden, Colo., told the Northwest Mining Association convention he believes the Montana initiative that scuttled his company's planned McDonald gold project was part of an effort to ban open pit mining across the country.
I-137, approved by Montana voters in November 1998, banned new open-pit cyanide leach mines. Cyanide is a highly poisonous substance used to extract tiny fragments of gold when it is drizzled over piles of crushed low-grade ores.
The Seven-Up Pete Joint Venture, owner of the McDonald gold project, started applying for permits in 1994 and paid $70 million to develop an open-pit, heap leaching mine.
Since the passage of I-137, the company has gone to court in an effort to overturn the initiative and seeks $500 million or more in damages for what it claims is an illegal ''taking'' of property.
''In my opinion, the environmental community perceived this would be very clean to the environment and likely to be permitted,'' De Voto said prior to delivering a keynote speech to the mining association.
The initiative was an ''end run'' around state regulators who would have approved the mine, he contended.
Similar efforts against open-pit mines have sprung up in Colorado, where an initiative failed to make the ballot, and in Washington state, where a proposed open-pit gold mine is currently awaiting state permits.
''It will surely be back,'' he said of the anti-cyanide initiative, implying that sand and gravel and limestone quarries could be a future target.
Bonnie Gestring of the Montana Environmental Information Center in Helena denied that the initiative her group sponsored was intended to preclude all open-pit mining.
''The initiative was specifically to phase out open-pit cyanide mining in Montana,'' she said. ''It was not part of a nationwide effort. It was the first of its kind in the nation.''
The pro-initiative groups targeted cyanide leach technology because it has caused so many problems in Montana, a mining state, she said.
Montana already is paying at least $7.5 million to clean pollution at a bankrupt mine site, she said. And an existing gold mine De Voto's company owns near Lewistown, Mont., ''has been an environmental catastrophe'' that polluted surface and ground water.
De Voto said the mine's filtration and irrigation systems clean the waste water and make more available for downstream users.
But Gestring declared, ''This initiative is the direct result of irresponsible mining by Dick De Voto.''