by Tom Kuglin, Independent Record
Citing deficiencies in environmental analysis and impacts on wildlife, a conservation group is asking a federal judge to stop road improvements to a gold mine in Jefferson County.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies filed the complaint in Federal District Court in Missoula on Aug. 6, requesting an injunction on the road right-of-way until the court can decide if the Bureau of Land Management violated environmental law.
In July, BLM gave the go-ahead for Smith Contracting Inc. of Butte to maintain and improve a dirt road traveling across 2.82 miles of BLM property to the Golden Asset Mine. The mine is located in Golconda Gulch about four miles east of Interstate 15 in the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Area.
Some small-scale work had begun on the road during the first few days of August, said Scott Haight, field manager for BLM’s Butte Field Office.
“They have permission to use and maintain the road for commercial purposes, but I don’t think it’s really geared up,” he said. “(Smith has) been out there but they’re doing it intermittently.”
The lawsuit alleges that road improvements will create a “major industrial mine ore haul route” and cause irreparable harm to the environment.
Under the permit, Smith could haul up to 25 loads of ore per week along Troy Creek. The current road would need maintenance to sustain that level of heavy truck traffic, environmental documents said. Hauling would take place when BLM opens the road from May 16 to Dec. 1.
Smith operates the Golden Asset Mine under a Small Miner Exclusion Statement, restricted to less than five acres of total surface disturbance. The operation would have two to six workers on site at any given time.
According to the lawsuit, the Elkhorns play an important role as a corridor for wildlife including federally protected lynx and grizzly bears, and noise and activity from road work and hauling would disrupt the corridor. The Golden Asset Mine Road is located within an area BLM designated as an area of critical environmental concern, the lawsuit said.
In the 1990s, a dam gave way, spilling arsenic and cyanide into Golconda Creek and shutting the mine down. The closing left piles of contaminated tailings, the lawsuit said. BLM failed to conduct a full analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of the current and future impacts from the mine, said Mike Garrity, executive director for the alliance.
“That’s our point; we don’t think they did a very good environmental analysis,” he said. “A lot of these mines pollute in perpetuity, and NEPA should be a ‘look before you leap,’ giving the public the full range of impacts.”
Although the mine operates on private land, the water running from it is public, Garrity said. Transporting ore along Troy Creek could endanger water quality into Prickly Pear Creek, he said.