Mountain of gold: will mining this mineral destroy Yellowstone, the ‘crown jewel’ of the national parks?

Mountain of gold: will mining this mineral destroy Yellowstone, the ‘crown jewel’ of the national parks?

Lynda Jones

The 1996 gold rush is on! Geologists from Crowne Butte Mines, Inc., a Canadian company, claim they’ve found millions of dollars worth of gold in southwestern Montana. Now Crowne Butte wants to blast the property to mine the gold.

The problem: The proposed mine site lies 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from Yellowstone National Park. Though the area was mined between 1870 and the late 1950s, the Crowne Butte mine will cover more land. Environmentalists fear that mining for minerals there will leave toxic waste materials behind and harm wildlife. But the mining company claims that the latest mining technology will prevent environmental damage.

Should Crowne Butte be allowed to mine near Yellowstone? Read on, then debate and decide.



Some people say we need gold. That’s why Crowne Butte is so eager to dig up the precious metal. “You may not realize it, but you use gold every day,” says John Lutley of the Gold Institute in Washington, D.C. Even if you don’t wear gold jewelry, you can find gold in the electronic circuits of your VCR, computer, stereo, television, and telephone.

One reason manufacturers use gold in so many of their products is that gold can conduct, or transmit, electric currents very well. Gold is also the most ductile and malleable of all elements. That means you can easily draw the metal into fine wires, or hammer it into extremely thin sheets. And unlike other metals, gold does not tarnish or corrode when exposed to air, moisture, or heat.

Gold forms with other minerals, naturally occurring crystalline solids, within Earth’s crust. Miners usually find gold in rock formations near volcanoes, says geologist Terry Offield of the U.S. Geological Survey. The magma (molten rock) that contains gold fills the faults, or cracks, in the rock.

But most of the world’s gold is found in small, often microscopic, amounts. Earth’s crust averages

about 0.004 grams of gold per ton of rock. That’s why Crowne Butte’s geologists are glad they found such a rich supply of the metal beneath Henderson Mountain.

Crowne Butte hopes to mine the gold reserves by blasting a hole into Earth’s crust to reach the ore (rocks or minerals that contain a valuable metal). Though Crowne Butte agrees that some environmental damage may occur, they claim they will do everything they can to protect Yellowstone.

For instance, to prevent toxic waste from getting into the park, the mining company will redirect the flow of groundwater away from the park. And if pollution does find its way into the park’s streams, they say they will build a water-treatment plant to filter out pollutants. (The U.S. Forest Service recently awarded the company for cleaning up past mining damage in the area.)

The mine will also provide more than 400 jobs. That means an additional $7 million spent on housing, food, schools, and other services may flow into nearby towns.


But many people believe the mine will ruin the beauty of the park and kill plants and wildlife. When you mine for gold, you also extract pyrite, or fool’s gold, says Bob Ekey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group in Montana. Pyrite is iron sulfide. When this chemical is exposed to air or water it forms sulfuric acid.

That’s a problem because 70 percent of the proposed mine will lie underneath three watersheds, separate streams divided by land, which drain into the Yellowstone River, says Terri Martin of the National Parks and Conservation Association (see map, p. 15). If heavy rain flows through the mine area, it can pick up iron sulfide and carry it from the mine area into the watersheds–and into the park. The sulfuric acid would kill plants, fish, and other animals, Ekey says. The orange-colored acid would also ruin the park’s natural beauty.

Even if Crowne Butte does put in a water-treatment plant to help purify the water, Martin says, “the guarantee that it will last forever is unbelievable.” For one thing, she says, “Yellowstone has the highest number of earthquakes outside of California.” Last year, more than 1,200 small earthquakes rumbled through the region (see map, above). Quakes could easily destroy a water-treatment plant, Martin says.

She also fears these earthquakes could break open a pond that Crowne Butte wants to build to store toxic waste material from the mine. “What if the quakes cause the pond to leak in 200 to 300 years?” she asks. “Who’s going to take care of it when the company doesn’t exist anymore?”

“We’re also concerned that the mine will displace wildlife, like grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, and elk, whose habitats lie near the mine site,” says Ekey of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He claims that many animals have already been scared away by the mine company’s exploratory drilling.

Such environmental damage might also drive away tourists who visit nearby Cooke City to go snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. And many of that town’s 100 citizens depend on those tourists to make a living, Ekey says.

Ultimately, Congress will decide whether or not the mine will be built. But you can let the government know what you think. Send your opinions to:

Vice President Al Gore Office of Environmental Policy 360 Old Executive Office Building Washington, DC 20501

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