Blackjack Silver has big plans to venture underground in Butte and see what minerals remain.
The mining company is managed by former executives at Bunker Hill Mining Corporation. They were with Bunker Hill when it forged a 2018 consent decree with the EPA and another responsible party, the Placer Mining Company, at the Bunker Hill Superfund site near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Now, the executives have formed a new company and set their sights on another Superfund site, right here in Butte.
Things are moving fast.
The project for exploratory hard-rock drilling on private land in and near Walkerville is moving quickly through the state’s permitting process. Blackjack has moved a small team into town and already posted a $225,000 reclamation bond for the project. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality Monday put out a draft Environmental Assessment for public comment.
“It kind of all came out of the blue,” Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive JP Gallagher said.
Gallagher first spoke with the company a couple months back, and met in person a month ago, he said.
He said he and Eric Hassler, director of Butte-Silver Bow’s Reclamation department, will take a hard look at the environmental assessment for the proposed project to make sure it will not affect current remedy.
After all, the exploration would take place in the same veins and tunnels that not only put the Mining City on the map, but made Butte one of the largest Superfund complexes in the nation.
The stakes will be much higher if Blackjack finds the silver, zinc and other metals it seeks, and a mine is proposed, Gallagher said.
“I want to see first if these exploratory tests even produce anything. I don't want to cause either enthusiasm around it, or the other way around — people being really apprehensive. Because we've gone through the damages of mining,” Gallagher said.
Monday evening the DEQ opened a 22-day comment period on the draft assessment. The company is listed as Butte Blackjack Operating, LLC on the document.
Tuesday Blackjack Silver sent out a press release, and gave The Montana Standard a tour of the site.
Blackjack looks to drill 37 exploration holes from 12 drill pads at two sites, and tunnel in through the old Chief Joseph portal near the Badger State Mine. Both surface and underground drilling is possible.
The Badger site is located northwest of the Berkeley Pit and east of Walkerville. The Missoula site is in the open area southwest of the historic Lexington Mine and St. Lawrence O’Toole Church and northeast of the corner of Missoula Avenue and 5th Street.
Combining past data and reports with the planned drilling, the company intends to develop an estimate of the quantity and quality of minerals underground.
Surveys taken by New Butte Mining Co. in the 1980s suggest the riches are there, Blackjack Silver director Mark Hartmann said, but now the company needs to prove it to its investors.
Blackjack leased the mineral and property rights from International Silver, Inc. in late 2020.
On Tuesday, Hartmann showed off his company’s new turf at the Badger site. The Chief Joseph portal needs major repair, and the tunnel is blocked with a cave-in 400 feet inside. Blackjack hopes to increase the decline to a length of 1,500 feet and reach 350 feet below ground for possible drilling.
Walking out of Chief Joseph, the tips of historic headframes in the distance, Hartmann beamed with optimism.
"It's the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Still, he said he’s conscious of what his company is trying to do — mine a Superfund site, and one that’s a long way off from achieving hard fought remedy.
“We're very sensitive to the fact that we're in an area that not many people have gone, trying to get a mine permitted within a Superfund site in Montana. And so we're asking for help along the way, and advice from the permitting agencies as to what we should do," he said.
Three Blackjack executives tried to do just that with their previous company in the state next door — Bunker Hill Mining Corp. at the Bunker Hill Superfund site near Coeur d’Alene.
Hartmann was the COO of the company, John Ryan the director, and Bruce Reid was the CEO.
The men walked away from the project because they were unable to get investors, Hartmann said, but only after the 2018 consent decree, which laid out responsibilities for the continued cleanup of the historic mine mess and removed a barrier for Bunker Hill to move forward with mining on site.
Much like in Butte, historic mining operations beginning in the late 1800s left the area around Bunker Hill an environmental disaster. Contaminants spread through local water bodies and soil and still plague the area today.
Since the executives’ departure, the Bunker Hill mine has found investors and is now closer than ever to going forward, Hartmann said.
“Another leadership team is in there now piggybacking on what we had started on. And so because of what we did with our work with the EPA, in a positive sense, they're now able to move forward with a potential mine plan,” he said.
It’s all about timing.
New Butte Mining in the late 1980s and early 1990s did a lot of the legwork for Blackjack. The Badger hoist house is a museum of boxed core samples, and Blackjack’s small team has already been at work at the core splitter that sits in the middle of the historic building, evaluating the samples they inherited.
New Butte wasn’t able to capitalize, however.
“Today the price of silver is maybe four times what it was then. The price of zinc has doubled," Hartmann said.
Hartmann said the company is employing three Montana Tech students part-time and two additional full-time geologists.
The company website, blackjacksilver.com, is already up and running and tailored to the project, with pictures of the Berkeley Pit and Butte’s famous headframes for banners. The company, in other words, exists to mine Butte.
The entire project would be located on private land, disturbing a total of 3.44 acres, according to the DEQ’s assessment. Drilling is not permitted to exceed a depth beyond 5,460 feet above sea level to avoid intercepting groundwater.
Exploration would occur over the course of two years, followed by up to two years of reclamation, and all new surface disturbances would be backfilled, re-contoured, and re-seeded, according to the assessment.
The project would generate up to 21,000 cubic yards of waste rock, and use up to 15,000 gallons of public water each day. The rock would be deposited on an area near the Badger mine, and there is a hydrant near the Badger portal.
Blackjack has submitted a complete exploration permit to the DEQ, and if the Environmental Assessment is approved after comment, the company will likely receive a license to drill from the state.
Permits are required by Butte-Silver Bow as well, including excavation and stormwater permits. Hartmann said Blackjack applied for a stormwater permit from the county, and another from the DEQ.
According to the Environmental Assessment, portions of the project area may be zoned two-family residential or conservation open space. Hartmann told The Montana Standard he wasn’t aware of any zoning requirements, but would look into it.
That the proposed project falls within the Butte Mine Flooding Operable Unit and Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit Superfund areas doesn’t seem to present any clear obstacles for exploration.
Dana Barnicoat, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator for Butte, said Blackjack Silver has contacted the EPA and said the exploration work wouldn’t touch any area remediated for Superfund.
DEQ public information officer Moira Davin said the EPA has been consulted on the project and noted the DEQ received the reclamation bond, but said the bond has yet to be officially accepted and is still subject to adjustment during the permitting process.
Dave Williams, former BLM geologist and president of Butte’s Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, looked over the assessment and didn’t find any cause for environmental alarm, even if it is taking place on a Superfund site.
If Blackjack finds minerals and goes forward with an underground mine, the overlap of Superfund remedy in progress and the new operation will require closer attention, he said.
“That’s when stuff gets a little more interesting.”
The Environmental Assessment is open for public comment until August 11. To submit public comment or view the document, visit the DEQ website at https://deq.mt.gov/public/publiccomment