The state Department of Environmental Quality has approved exploratory drilling in a controversial gold-mining project in Emigrant Gulch, just north of Yellowstone Park.
Lucky Minerals, a Canadian company, has been interested in gold mining around Paradise Valley for several years. The company has bought up old claims and staked new ones covering a total of more than 2,500 acres. It says the acreage holds "a large-scale porphyry copper-gold-molybdenum system that could potentially host a multi-million-ounce gold deposit."
DEQ Director Tom Livers said Friday that Lucky Minerals had actually agreed to mitigations associated with the exploration that were above and beyond what the DEQ had the statutory authority to require.
"There are things we can require under the Metal Mines Act and other things we can't," he said. "But once further mitigations are agreed to, we can enforce them."
One of the things the company agreed to was to use Old Cemetery Road rather than driving trucks and equipment past Chico Hot Springs.
Also, the company agreed to monitoring water quality on Emigrant Creek. Lucky Minerals must also come up with a garbage-disposal plan to minimize impacts on wildlife.
Livers stressed that the approval is for exploratory drilling only and any expansion of mining activities would require a far more comprehensive environmental review and permitting process.
"The reality is we're required by law to consider only what's in front of us," he said. "We can't consider the impacts of an expanded operation in granting this approval. But any further work would require a separate application and a separate environmental review."
Local opposition to the project has been fierce.
Livingston, Emigrant, and Pray residents have vociferously objected to the project, saying a big mine in the area would risk environmental disaster at the gates of America's most treasured national park and also would have a negative effect on tourism, the lifeblood of the regional economy.
Colin Davis, owner of Chico Hot Springs, is leading the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition, a group of 360 businesses and landowners opposed to mining on the edge of Yellowstone.
"We're pro-private property rights and not anti-mining at all," Davis says. "We're against industrial-scale gold mining in the Paradise Valley."
Last year local writers and editors combined forces on a book, "Unearthing Paradise," encouraging political action to block gold mining near the park.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, in April introduced legislation, the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, to permanently halt mining on federal land surrounding Paradise Valley. At the time, Tester said with more people visiting national parks each year and the reliance of area businesses on the health of the environment, the legislation was needed to protect current and future generations.
The Lucky Minerals claims are partly on private land and partly on public land, but the buffer zones in federal land that would be withdrawn from mining under the bill would make industrial-scale mining all but impossible on the site.
While U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, has voiced support for protecting the area around the park, he has stopped short of supporting the bill Tester introduced. He is in a position, as a majority member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, to help push the bill forward.
"We need the help of our entire delegation," Davis said. "This isn't Jon Tester's bill, this is Montana's bill. Its language is pretty straightforward."
Davis added that the DEQ approval "points out the urgency for our congressional delegation to unify and act together to shepherd the Protection Act through."
On Friday, Tester said, "It makes no sense to mine at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River and on the doorstep of our nation's first national park. These mines will do irreversible damage to Montana's outdoor economy and the jobs it supports."
A Daines spokesman said Friday evening, "Sen. Daines opposes mining in this area, but he is still weighing the best way to achieve the withdrawal."
Daines said after a committee hearing on the bill, "I am committed to continue to work with Senator Tester and local stakeholders on this important legislation. ... It is important to me that, in any major land decision like this one, that the local community stands firmly behind it. The county commissioners, the other local elected officials, local businesses, and outdoor businesses like the fly-fishing industry support the withdrawal. I can say with confidence that, after the meetings I have had, that most of the community does stand with this mineral withdrawal."
DEQ will set a bonding amount for the exploratory work, which must be paid in cash before that work can begin.
"That's one hurdle done," Lucky vice president Shaun Dykes told The Bozeman Chronicle Thursday. Efforts to reach Dykes Friday were unsuccessful.
On its website, the company says that 10 "highly mineralized breccia-pipes and two porphyry targets exist within the company's property boundary." Breccia pipes are geological formations that can be hosts for metal ore deposits. Porphyry deposits often enclose copper, gold, and molybdenum.
A second proposed mine near Jardine, closer to the park's north entrance, has been stalled after DEQ twice rejected applications from a Spokane company, citing multiple deficiencies in its exploration plans.