Environmental interests and industrial development often clash, and there are usually cases to be made on both sides. But when the environment in question is Yellowstone National Park, industry interests have to come second.
Plans have been drawn for a mining operation in the Beartooth Mountains of south-central Montana, less than three miles from the northeast corner of the park and surrounded by a wilderness area.There is an estimated $550 million worth of gold in them thar hills, and Crown Butte Mines Inc. intends to bring it out - at a rate of 1,200 to 1,800 tons of ore a day.
Though mine company officials say the mining operation will be "environmentally benign - as most mines go," it is almost beyond credulity that the fragile environment can be protected.
After the ore is dug, it would be conveyed to a nearby mill where gold, silver and copper would be separated by gravity and flotation. About half the mine tailings would be mixed with cement and put back into the mine holes, while the rest would be mixed with water and piped to a plastic-lined dump site that eventually would cover 72 acres and be some nine to 10 stories high.
A new power line would have to be run about 65 miles from Cody, Wyo., to the mine, and quarters would be built for 175 miners.
Though the company promises it would be sensitive to environmental concerns and take steps to control acid generation from tailings and restore the area when the ore is gone, there is reason to be skeptical. The history of mining in the West has sometimes lacked environmental sensitivity, and the proximity to Yellowstone is cause for great concern.
The mine site is in the upper watershed of the park. Nearby Fisher Creek and Soda Butte Creek flow eventually into the Yellowstone River. The fish and wildlife of the entire area depend on the streams.
Yellowstone is one of the most seismic areas in the country. That and the harsh climate make the mine site unstable, and a tailings impoundment of this magnitude demands stability.
Yellowstone is not only a national treasure but is important to the world. Because of its status as a World Heritage site, an international inspection committee is due to visit the park in September to determine whether the proposed mine and the park can exist so close together.
Those agencies who have authority to issue permits to allow the mine to begin operation should pay close attention to the recommendations of the international committee and to conservation groups. No amount of gold is worth doing harm to one of the greatest natural wonders in America.