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Golden Sunlight

Operations going on at Golden Sunlight on a fall day last year. Mining will stop at Golden Sunlight by the end of the month and the 53 workers will see a reduction in workforce Sept. 30.

After more than 30 years of mining just northeast of Whitehall, Golden Sunlight will fall silent at the end of April.

Dan Banghart, Golden Sunlight general manager, said the south side mining that has been taking place this year will come to a close within the next couple of weeks. The shovels and drills will be shut off for the last time by the end of the month. There will be some milling activity in May and then, that too, will end.

The company doesn’t expect a reduction in workforce until Sept. 30. Currently, the mine owned by Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. employs 53 people, he said.

But contractors and subcontractors are already leaving, Banghart said. As of the end of March, the company had 103 contract workers, but he said it’s less than that now.

He said that currently, the primary contractor, Redpath, has 41 workers on site.

Golden Sunlight ended its open-pit gold mining in late 2015 and shifted to underground mining by the beginning of 2016. But in the process, it significantly reduced its work force. Most of the workers at Golden Sunlight since have been contractor or subcontractor workers.

How many the company will lay off in September is not known at this point,  Banghart said Wednesday. He made the announcement of the closure at a community meeting in Whitehall last week.

Barrick announced through a news release a possible closure date in May about a month ago, so this latest turn of events is not a surprise. Leonard Wortman, Jefferson County commissioner, said by phone Wednesday that the financial impact won’t hit Jefferson County this budget cycle but it will hurt the county in the next fiscal year. He said the mine will still pay property taxes, and that is substantial, he said. But he didn’t have a specific figure.

Golden Sunlight’s closure will likely kick in the Hard Rock Trust Account, which provides money to the county and the schools in the event of mine closure. Bonnie Ramey, Jefferson County clerk and recorder, said last month that the account currently had $335,042 left in it.

Wortman hopes that Golden Sunlight will be able to retrofit its milling process and reprocess its old mining waste currently stored in a tailings impoundment on the property. But Banghart said that while that could happen, and the company is exploring the option, Barrick has not made a decision yet on whether it will pursue that.

If it does, Golden Sunlight will have to go through a permitting process through the Department of Environmental Quality. Banghart said that would likely take a year.

“We’ve been telling folks don’t anticipate a bridge,” he said.

If the company decides to pursue reprocessing the waste and the company gets the state permit, then Golden Sunlight's workforce would “ramp back up”, he said.

Between May and September, the 53 employees will still be busy. Golden Sunlight is still evaluating the potential to begin underground mining of the Apex Mine, which DEQ permitted earlier this year. The workers will also be doing studies on the tailings for the potential reprocessing plan. There will also be cleanup work.

“Between now and then (Sept. 30) there’ll be a lot of decommissioning and clearing,” Banghart said.

He said the workers will also be watching each other’s backs. He said that with the expected lay-off and employees looking for jobs, they could be distracted and not giving their full attention to the work at hand.

“It’s what you’d expect,” he said.

Banghart said the outside miner program will cease, as well, when the shovels stop. He said the company has informed the small miners.

The program has paid out about $45 million to small miners since 2011, according to Banghart last year. Small miners go into the mountains in nearby areas to process old mine dumps usually left behind in the late 1800s to recover gold through Golden Sunlight’s milling process.

Banghart said the company won’t start building a water treatment plant at this stage to pump and treat the water expected to collect in the open pit. He said workers will be looking into options of groundwater treatment over the summer. He said Golden Sunlight won’t turn off the pumps yet. The pumps prevent groundwater from collecting in the bottom of the pit.

“For now we’ll be reusing as much of that reclaim water as possible in our cleanup efforts around the mill and basically the water gets pushed to the tailings facility,” he said.

But if Barrick decides not to pursue reprocessing the tailings and also decides not to pursue underground mining at the Apex, just slightly northeast of the current open pit, then whatever skeleton crew will be left will have one last thing to do:

“It would definitely head into full-blown closure,” Banghart said.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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