NESPELEM, Wash. -- March 18 may be one of the most important days in the
history of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. A
referendum vote is scheduled for that date. Passage of the referendum would
lift a moratorium on mining on the reservation and allow the Colville
Business Council to pursue proposals from mining companies. Rejection of
the vote would keep the moratorium in place.
The possibility of large amounts of money is a big draw but opposed to that
are the loss of a mountain and its spiritual value and the likelihood of
environmental problems. Both sides have their supporters, creating a split
in tribal members.
The impetus for this vote arose when consideration surfaced for revisiting
a molybdenum ore deposit near the top of Mount Tolman near the town of
Keller. Exploratory work was done between 1964 and 1983 by both Kennecott
Minerals Co. and AMAX Mining Co. (now Cypress Amax Minerals Co.) An
Environmental Impact Statement was prepared at that time, but development
ceased and AMAX pulled out when moly prices dropped below a threshold where
it would be economically profitable to mine.
The price of molybdenum has historically remained below $5 per pound except
during the early 1980s, when it reached $12 a pound (at the time, AMAX
planned to mine Mount Tolman), and again in 1995, when it briefly rose to
$15 a pound before again receding below $5. Prices again shot up in late
2003 and have averaged more than $33 per pound through much of 2005. These
high prices have again brought out the interest in considering a mine on
Each of the 6,684 eligible voters on the reservation should have received
two pamphlets near the end of January. One pamphlet, titled "Mt. Tolman
Project Consideration," outlined the history of mining of the site,
quantities of ore, location of the ore body, mining methods, potential
benefits and other related aspects. It was prepared by former tribal mining
director Don Aubertin, of Aubertin & Associates based in Lakewood, Colo.
The second pamphlet is titled "Mt. Tolman Preservation" and was produced by
the Colville Indian Environmental Protection Alliance, which opposes mining
on Mount Tolman. The group has hired professionals to help document
potential problems ranging from human and cultural impacts, water quality
and other environmental impacts, including those to fish and wildlife. It
also documents problems that have occurred in other open-pit mining
Voters have been encouraged to study both these pamphlets prior to the
March 18 vote. A series of informational meetings have been held in several
locations on and off the reservation to give tribal members an opportunity
to hear these professionals discuss both sides of the issue and to have
their own questions answered.
Tribal leaders preferred to not voice an opinion, not wanting to influence
Facts and figures offered are based on the earlier EIS and plans developed
by AMAX more than 20 years ago. If the vote favors pursuing a mining
operation, a new EIS would need to be developed and some of the figures and
plans would have to be altered. Such an EIS would likely take about three
years to prepare and the mining company would be required to pay the cost
of the report.
Molybdenum is the primary mineral at Mount Tolman, with copper making up
perhaps 10 -- 15 percent of the value plus minute quantities of gold and
silver. A production rate of 64,800 tons per day, operating 358 days per
year, was projected. At that rate, the mine would operate 43 years based on
identified quantities of ore. Those numbers would change if the production
rate were changed or if other adjoining locations proved to have sufficient
ore to make it feasible to expand.
An estimate of 350 -- 450 full-time employees would be required to operate
the mine and other service developments could double that number. At the
height of construction, it was estimated that more than 2,300 people would
be employed, mostly as temporary construction workers and mostly
non-Indian. Nearby communities would be impacted by such a substantial
increase in population.
The mining operation would involve removing the top of Mount Tolman and
creating an open pit mine down the northeastern face of the mountain
another 1,100 feet. Dams to control tailings and waste rock would be
developed. Explosives would be used to break up the solid rock on
horizontal levels around the pit, working ever deeper into the deposit. The
eventual pit would measure approximately 850 acres. In the earlier mining
plan, another 2,810 acres would be included in four waste sites, two for
waste rock and tailings and two for just waste rock.
The potential exists for a considerable amount of money to be made from
molybdenum mining. The AMAX mine projected an average selling price of $15
per pound. Using the production rate described above, it would return about
$90 million a year, or $10.3 billion over 43 years.
The income wouldn't begin immediately, as an EIS must first be prepared,
followed by the construction of a mill, tailings sites, the mine itself,
roads and other components. The construction company would likely receive
all profits until its investment costs were met. It might be 10 to 15 years
before the tribe would see any return and that percentage would need to be
worked out in agreements before any work commenced.
Money can also lead into the flip side of the question, one posed by tribal
members opposed to mining.
Molybdenum is presently selling for more than $30 a pound but this is far
and away higher than the long-term average of less than $5 a pound. When
prices fell before, AMAX abandoned the project.
No one can absolutely say whether prices will remain high or will again
fall. Mining has historically been a boom-or-bust business; these current
prices may reflect a temporary high, or they may remain high. Should mining
again become financially impractical and be forced to cease after
development has begun, Mount Tolman could be replaced with an open pit with
no financial gain to show for it.
The CIEPA group urges a "No" vote to mining, citing not only the problems
that could develop should prices for molybdenum drop, but potential
destruction of watersheds, possible pollution of Lake Roosevelt, hazards to
humans and animals, loss of timber and wildlife, plus loss of cultural and
traditional values. The pamphlet pointed out that Mount Tolman "was and is
a sacred cultural and traditional prayer site."
Information on potential environmental impacts was prepared for this
pamphlet by Ann Maest, a geochemist, and Bonnie Gestring with the former
Mineral Policy Center.
The pamphlet states that the ore grade is the lowest of all proposed
molybdenum mines in the world. It questions the safety of acidic mine
drainage, as some of the ore contains high amounts of pyrite, often
responsible for the formation of acid. The rock, which contains quartz
monzonite, has little ability to neutralize the acid. The tailings would
likely be disposed of in two basins, Meadow Creek and Last Chance, and
would contain high amounts of sulfide. Waste rock piles would be unlined
and may also be a significant source of water pollution.
Water is a significant concern for those opposed to mining. Water must be
pumped from around the open pit area to keep the pit dry for mining; but in
doing that, lower groundwater levels would be experienced and would reduce
the water in streams fed by that groundwater. The mine is also projected to
require 8,000 gallons of water per minute to operate, which would be pumped
from the Sanpoil Arm of Lake Roosevelt. The combination of these events
could cause contamination of waters in the area and cause harm to both
agricultural and residential water supplies. Sulfides can adversely affect
soil, plants and fish, and the lack of neutralizing material almost
guarantees that acid mine drainage will form.
This group also questions the long-term liability of treating contaminated
waters, should that occur, and cite examples of a number of mines where
this has occurred despite EIS assurances that such problems wouldn't
develop. The Zortman and Landusky Mine in Montana, adjacent to Fort
Belknap, is one example where the company filed for bankruptcy, leaving the
tribes to deal with the impact of long-term water pollution and taxpayers
with significant reclamation and water treatment costs that will continue
in perpetuity. Other examples were also provided for mines in Idaho,
Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Several advocacy groups have sprung up and have printed leaflets explaining
their positions. Visions for Our Future is one such group, headed up by
Billie Jo Bray. She is a San Poil, one of the tribes indigenous to the
Mount Tolman area. Her great-great-grandfather was a medicine man there. "I
consider our San Poil culture an endangered culture," she said. "A mine
here would totally wipe us out within our spirituality and traditional
attachment to the land."
Information supporting the mining proposition is scarce, other than the
"Mt. Tolman Project Consideration" cited above.
Whichever way the March 18 votes goes, a division within the reservation