The Golden Sunlight mine could soon increase employment, production and the amount of money it contributes to county and local budgets by reprocessing vast tailings piles at the facility—a proposed venture that government and mine officials say will also aid in remediating historic contamination at the site.
The proposal to reprocess 26 million tons of tailings over about 12 years, beginning this fall, is currently being evaluated by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The mine, which is owned by Barrick Gold, would increase employment from its current level of 16 people to about 35 people, according to Golden Sunlight General Manager Chuck Buus, and would also hire around 40 mostly local contractors. Buus shared with The Monitor a presentation that Barrick officials gave to Gov. Greg Gianforte in March that touted a $50 million payroll and $20 million state, local and payroll tax contribution over the project's span. Information on local components of that estimated tax revenue was not immediately available.
The mine, which opened in 1982 and employed around 300 people at its peak and averaged around 150 employees, shifted from open-pit mining to underground mining in 2013 before closing in 2019. By then, employment dropped to fewer than 20 people and jobs were limited to reclamation and closure. The DEQ will take public comments on the proposal at the Borden's Building in Whitehall at 6:30 p.m. on June 29, and Buus expects a final decision by mid-September. He said that workers are already preparing the mine for tailings reprocessing in anticipation of approval, and that the mine could begin shipping product by December.
Submitted to the DEQ in January, the proposal to reprocess mine tailings and sell the resulting gold and sulphide slurry to the Barrick co-owned Nevada Gold Mines to aid in its gold extraction comes as Jefferson County experiences a yearslong decline in revenue derived from Golden Sunlight. Increased production at the mine could cause revenues to rebound, though officials doubt they will reach pre-closure levels.
County Commission Chairman Leonard Wortman explained that the county receives revenue from the mine via a metalliferous mines tax collected by the state and disbursed back to the county, as well as through taxes the county collects directly from the mine. State law governs the distribution and use of metal mines tax revenues, he said: At least 40 percent of the funds are placed into a trust, accessible only if a mine cuts employment by 50 percent or more, as Golden Sunlight did, and the remaining 60 percent of the revenue is divided evenly between elementary schools in Whitehall and Cardwell, Whitehall High School and a county fund for economic development.
"That’s basically what we fund the [Jefferson Local Development Corporation] with," Wortman said.
According to Wortman and county data, Jefferson County received about $242,500 from the tax in 2015 when the mine was operating underground, and revenue remained in excess of $100,000 annually through 2019, when the county received $224,000 from the metal mines tax.
That amount dropped to $17,560 in 2020, the first full year of Golden Sunlight's closure.
The county also collects taxes directly from the mine—revenue that goes into the county's general budget. County levies on the mine are taxes on metals the mine produces, Wortman said, adding that he was unsure if the tax covers sulphide slurry, the main product derived from the tailings, but that it will cover the gold also recovered from tailings.
That revenue stream totaled $1.051 million in 2016, dropped to $576,000 in 2017 and totaled only $272,000 in 2020.
"We don’t know what we’ll get this year but it’ll probably be much, much less than that," Wortman said, noting that Golden Sunlight was the only major mining operation in Jefferson County in at least the past five years.
But the funds' downward trajectories could be reversed if Golden Sunlight begins reprocessing tailings, he said, though he and Buus were unsure by how much county revenues from the mine might increase in 2022 or beyond.
"I don’t think it’s going to be nearly what it was before—that was based on gold production,” and this project primarily produces sulphide slurry, JLDC Project Coordinator Tom Harrington said.
Fortunately, Wortman said, the precipitous drop in revenue from Golden Sunlight has been largely offset by rising property values in the county, meaning that the county maintained its annual budget without significant tax increases.
"Jefferson County is a fairly rapidly growing county," Wortman noted, adding that increasing revenue from rising property values meant that "we were able to do most stuff" the county had budgeted for.
Another benefit of reprocessing mine tailings is the mitigation of existing environmental contamination and the need for perpetual water treatment, according to Buus, the general manager. Buus said that Golden Sunlight has pumped water out of its pit to prevent acidic water from permeating the surrounding rock formation, and has treated contaminated water released from tailings impoundments, for decades—and will be required to do so in perpetuity—but that removing contaminants from tailings via reprocessing and backfilling the pit with newly inert tailings could eliminate the need for endless water treatment and pumping.
"We’re killing a couple of birds with one stone—first, we’re going to eliminate a source of historic contamination, and then the tailings are pretty benign," Buus said, adding that existing facilities are being reused for the tailings work. "The potential to treat [water] will either be eliminated, or the amount of water will be so little that we can probably do it passively," possibly through evaporation. Plus, Buus said, the plan will be "extending the life of the mine by 10–12 years, or even more, and keeping a lot of people busy, and with that, obviously, comes revenue for the state and county."
Or, as Wortman put it, "Probably the best story for Golden Sunlight is not so much that they’re reprocessing the tailings and providing fuel for a mine in Nevada, but that they’re cleaning up contamination. It’s such a wonderful feel-good story that it’s such a benefit to the environment, really."