The 3.3 million ounces of gold Whitehall-based Golden Sunlight has dug up since 1982 could fit into the back of a standard-size pickup, even though the mine has excavated 1,575 feet into the ground.
But, Rick Jordan, mill supervisor, said that imaginary pickup, laden with gold bars, would weigh 15 tons.
This week is particularly bittersweet for Jordan. He started working at the mill on May 13, 1989. Jordan, now 62, supervised the final mill run on May 16, 2019 — 30 years and three days after he started — at his nearly life-long place of employment.
“I never thought we would be here this long,” Jordan said.
When Golden Sunlight first started mining on a cold November day in 1982, the 120 men who showed up for work before first light couldn’t have imagined the mine would live for 37 years until 2019. Placer Dome North America, the original corporate owner, projected a 13-year mine life.
But now that life is over. Golden Sunlight silenced the shovels and turned off the drills at the end of April. Third-generation Golden Sunlight miner Brandon Clements said the reality hadn’t hit him.
He sat inside the mill’s control room and watched over a television screen as the last haul of small grey rocks shrunk to the final grains of dust left to be picked up by the Montana spring winds.
But the 28-year-old, who works alongside his dad, George Clements, says the end of the once-thriving gold mine about five miles northeast of Whitehall is “scary.”
The loss goes deeper than the lost jobs. The Jefferson County mine has paid $16,759,412.44 in Metalliferous Mine License Taxes during the years of 2006-2018. Sanjay Talwani, Department of Revenue public information officer, said that is as far back as the state could dig into its back tax records.
Those aren’t all the company’s taxes. Corporate payroll taxes are not public information. But the county has collected $5.6 million in taxes from 2015 to 2018, said Terri Kunz, county treasurer.
Since the fall of 2015, when Golden Sunlight stopped mining the open pit — called the Mineral Hill Pit — the company has operated on a skeleton crew. The mine resurrected itself almost immediately after shuttering the pit by opening up an underground mine tunnel that wound around the pit walls, called “2Bug,” in early 2016.
But that labor Golden Sunlight largely farmed out to contractors and subcontractors who were experts in underground extraction.
Still, those contract and subcontract companies brought workers to the town of Whitehall and surrounding area and, despite being down for the count, Golden Sunlight pursued a long-planned second underground mine called the Apex. Because it was not attached to the Mineral Hill Pit, it had to be permitted separately.
Dan Banghart, general manager, asked that this story not be “too sad.” The mine has come back swinging and Banghart hopes it will once again. The Barrick Gold Corporation, based in Toronto, Canada, is considering two options now that the mine is closed — one is to begin again with the Apex Mine, which is now a fully permitted underground mine within view of Golden Sunlight’s main office, just half a mile northeast of the Mineral Hill Pit.
If Barrick does decide to mine the Apex, it's expected to yield roughly 150,000 ounces of gold over three years. Then it, too, would close.
The other possibility is reprocessing the tailings, the waste that came from 37 years of mining. If green lighted by corporate officials, the project would provide some jobs and extend the life of the mill.
But whether there will be a future for Golden Sunlight beyond reclamation and perpetual water treatment is uncertain. The company has not yet made a decision and Banghart doesn’t know when it will.
In fact, Banghart himself, who is 57, doesn’t know if he’ll still have a job past Sept. 30. That is the date when Barrick will announce its work force reduction and the 52 Barrick employees so far still hanging on will find out their fate.
Those left at the mine to start doing cleanup work next week wait and wonder.
Brandon Clements says he may start his own business. But his father, George, who is 55 and started at Golden Sunlight in 1988, had a different answer for what comes next.
“If we’re laid off, it’s a new adventure,” he said.
Banghart called his final report for the corporate office he had to write this week “historic.”
“It’s definitely not a normal week, that’s for sure,” Banghart said.
Golden Sunlight’s nine lives
Jordan says the men haven’t “had normal for the last three years.”
But he remembers a different time when the mine was thriving, the average miner’s age was 33 and “there were times we stopped at the bars.”
Once he showed up for work and found TV dinners in a work freezer. He thought the mine was providing lunch, so he ate them.
Until a colleague told Jordan those were his TV dinners.
But despite the joking around, the work was serious and sometimes dangerous. There were a few accidents in the early years. Jordan makes an annual trip to the miner's wall memorial at the World Museum of Mining in Butte.
“There are three names from Golden Sunlight,” he said.
Jordan knew two of them personally.
There were ups and there were downs. The mine had to shut down in the mid-1990s for a few months because the ground moved beneath the miners’ feet. Golden Sunlight kept paying their paychecks, but the workers worried about the work stoppage because no one knew at first how long it would last.
The voter referendum that passed in November 1998 to ban cyanide to process gold from open pit mining felt like dark times for Mineral Hill Pit workers, Jordan said. Miners believed it would be the end of Golden Sunlight.
Some say it was the end of gold mining in Montana, but Golden Sunlight was grandfathered in.
The skyrocketing power costs that gripped Montana in the early 2000s didn’t shut down Golden Sunlight, as they did Butte-based Montana Resources, for three years. But it created some uncertainty for the Whitehall-based mine, according to news stories from The Montana Standard at the time. Sometimes there were dips in gold price.
But overall, the price of gold has slowly, steadily risen over the decades. And so has the cost of mining it. As the miners had to go deeper into the ground to get it, the expense of shoveling it increased.
“It (the gold) was sitting on the surface at the beginning,” Jordan said.
As long ago as 2001, the Standard reported that Golden Sunlight’s resources had played out. Jordan said he thought the mine would be finished by 2003.
“We wouldn’t have lasted this long if the price of gold hadn’t gone north of $1,000,” Banghart said.
The price of gold hit above $1,000 for the first time in 2008, peaking at $1,011.
In days of old, miners mined small claims around Whitehall, Banghart said. Gold is heavy, so when panning for gold, as the old-timers did, the shiny yellow nuggets would stay on the bottom of the pan.
But Golden Sunlight has been mining microscopic-sized gold.
“Liberating (our gold) is a challenge,” Jordan said.
The mesh used to capture the gold specks is thick enough that Jordan compared it to a pantyhose stocking.
“We don’t see gold here,” Jordan said.
Can Golden Sunlight be resurrected?
Dave Williams, Bureau of Land Management geologist, hopes so. He would like to see Golden Sunlight ramp up again for the potential tailings reprocessing.
Before that can happen, the mine would have to go through a new permitting process, which could take a year. It would also have to refit its mill for flotation milling, similar to Montana Resources’ milling process. It’s unknown how long that would take.
But, Williams says if the company removes the gold out of its old waste, the process would eliminate the sulfides.
“By removing the sulfides, you’re pretty much removing the source of the vast majority of any potential contaminants. What would be left would be the normal constituents of the rock itself,” he said by phone last week.
Williams thinks it’s a win-win for the company, because he thinks it will “dramatically” reduce long-term liability for the company.
But for now, the only clear plan is to wait.