The Treasure State’s current — and possibly future — treasure lies with ordinary rock mining, a state official said Thursday at a mining symposium in Butte.
Ordinary rocks are the predominant mining commodity for the state.
Rock quarries and rock picking take up nearly half of the land Montana Department of Environmental Quality permits for mining, said DEQ geochemist Garrett Smith in a presentation to about 40 people at the Minerals and Mining Symposium at Montana Tech.
Rock mining can provide everything from construction gravel to decorative stone. Smith said most rock quarries and rock picking, which is a shallow operation, are in Central Montana. But Smith said potential exists for rock mining to be a growth industry for Southwest Montana.
With a number of small-scale sand and gravel pits between Butte and Dillon and between Butte and Bozeman, some of the industry already is in this part of the state. One of the larger rock quarries in Southwest Montana is Dennis Washington-owned Pipestone Quarry about 20 miles east of Butte. Montana Resources' vice president of human resources Mike McGivern said Pipestone Quarry's biggest buyer of rock is MR. MR is using the crushed rock to enlarge its tailings dam. Pipestone Quarry primarily provides crushed rock for railroad tracks.
The only base metal mine operating in the state is MR, Smith said. MR weathered the commodity pricing slump of 2016 and put millions back into the company.
Whitehall's Golden Sunlight is the only precious metal mine operative in Montana. Located 25 miles east of Butte, Golden Sunlight laid off most of its work force last year. But the Barrick-owned, Toronto-based operation maintains a small underground gold mine snaking around the former open pit mine. Golden Sunlight is also exploring opening another mine north of its current operation, Smith said.
All other base metal and precious metal mines in the state are in limbo, Smith said. That includes Butte Highlands Joint Venture, a gold mine trying to get off the ground 15 miles south of Butte.
Tech graduate student Kyle Eastman, 28, who is studying economic geology, a field concerned with mineral resources, attended Smith’s talk.
Hearing Smith's talk on the economic possibilities of rock mining would not impact his career choice despite the effects depressed commodity prices have had on metals mines. Eastman predicted nonrenewable resources' pricing will rise again because that's the nature of a cyclical business.
"As there's a greater need for these things, prices rise," Eastman said.