Gold rush strikes vein of protest

A legal legacy of the Wild West is threatening Yellowstone Park, writes David Usborne from Cooke City, Montana

Jim Barrett stalls the engine on his jeep and glances back up at the high and slightly bowed ridge that is Henderson Mountain. ``And to think they want to ravage this place just to help man satisfy his vanity,'' he remarks. ``I don't know how they keep a straight face or sleep at night.''

The answer, though unspoken, has dollar signs in front of it. Mr Barrett, a carpenter turned environmental activist, is speaking of the people of Crown Butte Mines, a mining company that plans to hollow out Henderson Mountain, in south-western Montana, and extract precious minerals, principally gold. In fact, if prices hold up, they could take a haul worth $750m (pounds 483m).

Scratching the earth for gold runs deep within the soul of the American West. But by choosing this spot, Crown Butte has unleashed an unexpected avalanche of opposition. Not only is a coalition of environmental groups bearing down on it , but so is a growing number of members of Congress and President Bill Clinton. Even the United Nations is lurking over the horizon.

Legally speaking, Crown Butte, a subsidiary of the Canadian industrial conglomerate Noranda, has done nothing wrong. Like other foreign-owned companies, including many from Europe, it has taken advantage of an antiquated US mining law that dates back to 1872. Conceived to encourage the settlement of the empty West, the law allows anyone to stake a mining claim on federal lands and, for a derisory fee of up to $5 an acre, extract anything from the ground without even having to pay any royalties to the government.

Perhaps for the first time, however, the primacy of that law may be about to be overturned by concern for a commodity perhaps more precious to most Americans even than gold: their natural heritage.

At an elevation of almost 10,000 feet, Henderson sits in the midst of some of this country's finest wilderness areas and, worst of all, less than three miles from the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. The world's first such park, it was founded in 1872, the year, ironically, that the mining law was passed.

That there are serious environmental risks attached to the project, some of which may threaten Yellowstone directly, seems indisputable. As various government agencies consider whether to grant the permits needed before work can begin, the question is whether the company's assertions that those risks can be contained are credible. The government's conclusion will be contained in an environmental impact assessment report due out by the end of this year.

But outside political influences are intervening already. Demonstrating his own opposition, President Clinton flew over the area in a helicopter last month and declared a moratorium on any new claims in the immediate vicinity of the mine, effectively blocking Crown Butte at least from expanding its project any further. Earlier this month, a delegation from the World Heritage Committee of the UN visited Henderson Mountain to determine whether Yellowstone Park, already a "World Heritage Site", should be redesignated a "World Heritage Site in Danger", because of the proposed mine.

Explaining the hazards of the mine, Mr Barrett strides to the banks of Fisher Creek, one of three main streams flowing from Henderson. Thanks to earlier mining dating back a hundred years, the stream is highly acidic, ensuring that it is biologically dead; its bed is a vivid orange. The culprit is the pyrite - fool's gold - that is also present and which turns to sulphuric acid when exposed to air and water.

"We can't complain about what happened before, but we can certainly try to stop it from happening again," he argues. "It's pure human duty."

What Crown Butte is proposing would dwarf the old workings at the mountain. Roughly 11 million tons of ore and other materials would be taken from the mountain, all laced with pyrite. Half of the waste would be stuffed back into the hillside, and the remainder dumped in a reservoir or "tailings pond". A main concern is how the company could guarantee that the pond, which it plans to build in Fisher Creek valley and which would be 10 storeys high and cover an area equivalent to 72 football pitches, would never rupture. Yellowstone, after all, is the second most earthquake-prone region of the US.

Fisher Creek does not flow into Yellowstone directly, though it does drain into the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River, itself a protected waterway. The park is threatened in many ways, however. One alternative site for the tailings pond would be above a different creek that feeds directly into the Yellowstone River inside the park. That same creek could be polluted by seepage from the tailings put back in the mountain. In addition, the project is in the middle of territory roamed by the endangered grizzly bear.

Repeated assurances by Crown Butte that the pond could never break and that water quality in the area would actually be improved, do not impress Stu Coleman, the natural resources director of Yellowstone Park.

"The arrogance of man, that he thinks that he can engineer for zero problems, astonishes me," Mr Coleman said. ``Maybe they're living on a different planet than I am, but those kinds of accidents are going to happen, and if they do happen they're probably going to be irreversible."

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