Barrick’s Golden Sunlight mine is spearheading an ambitious project to clean up environmental contamination at historic mine sites in Montana that will save the state and federal taxpayers millions of dollars.
Montana’s long history of mining, much of which pre-dates modern mining and environmental regulation, left a collection of improperly closed tailings impoundments and waste-rock piles that require clean-up. With taxpayers on the hook for the costs, Barrick found a creative solution.
In particular, while Montana’s historic tailings impoundments and waste-rock piles contain metals that can harm the environment, they also contain gold that can be extracted profitably at today’s prices. Barrick’s Golden Sunlight mine offered to re-process and store this material in its modern facilities, obviating the need for taxpayer-funded clean-ups.
In addition to the environmental benefits, the project is helping to stimulate the local economy by creating jobs in small businesses that collect and truck the material to the Golden Sunlight mine. These operators must obtain permits to remove the contaminated material and sell it to Barrick. The material is processed at Golden Sunlight’s mill and later stored in the mine’s tailings impoundment, which has more capacity than the mine needs.
Since 2010, Golden Sunlight has received approximately 308,000 tons of tailings and paid out approximately $25 million to local businesses that collect and transport the material. At the same time, it has recovered just under 22,000 ounces of gold. During this period, tailings and waste rock have been removed from over 10 historic mines. “It’s a win-win situation,” says David Williams, a geologist with the Bureau of Land Management. “We’re accomplishing many of the same goals that would have cost around $800,000 to $1 million of taxpayer money just to clean up a small site.”
To promote responsible management of these historic mines, Golden Sunlight does not process any material from sites found to be in non-conformance with their permits. “If a regulatory agency calls us and says an operator isn’t meeting their permit obligations, we shut them down until the issues are resolved to the agency’s satisfaction,” says Mark Thompson, Environmental Superintendent at Golden Sunlight. “We encourage responsible operators through a very close and transparent relationship with the regulatory community.”
Golden Sunlight isn’t just incentivizing other operators to clean up — the mine has reclaimed 1,500 acres, or nearly half of all land disturbed throughout its operations at a cost of roughly $4 million per year. “Our reclamation focuses on water management and wildlife habitat rehabilitation,” he says, adding with a smile, “deer and elk love our reclamation work.”
The local community took notice of Barrick’s environmental initiatives and successfully nominated Golden Sunlight for an environmental stewardship award. The Bureau of Land Management’s Hardrock Mineral Environmental Award went to Golden Sunlight at the recent MinEXPO Conference in Las Vegas.
“You have those elite companies out there that perform over and above what the norm is and Barrick is one of those companies,” says Tom Harrington of the Jefferson Local Development Corporation. “They’re actually walking the walk and not just talking the talk.”
Williams adds that “without community involvement, the project wouldn’t have risen to the top” of the nominee list and eventually won the award.
Barrick’s Thompson says Golden Sunlight is excited to be involved with this project. “Economic stimulation, social responsibility, environmental stewardship – the project touches almost all of Barrick’s core values and provides opportunities for the people in the area we operate.”