Hard-up US uni strikes gold - and hits trouble

March 5, 1999

A hard-up American public university has literally been given a gold mine.

Montana Tech, which faces a $500,000 operating deficit this year, would get an estimated $60 million in royalties from a mine proposed on land it owns that was once thought worthless. Interest alone would cover one-fifth of the annual budget.

But the property is a quarter mile from the Blackfoot River, the setting of the film A River Runs Through It. Environmentalists, who argue the mining process would pollute the river, have succeeded in delaying the extraction.

The university trains mining and geological engineers. Many of its biggest donors are mining companies and its faculty act as mining consultants. Only two of its professors, a married couple, have publicly opposed the project.

In November, 53 per cent of Montana voters backed a ban on the process that would be used to extract the gold. A pit three miles long and 1,500 feet deep will be dug and the extracted rock dynamited and piled in stacks before cyanide is released to bond with the gold and leach it to the bottom. Leftover cyanide would be channelled into plastic-lined holding pools, but critics say the liners often leak. If cyanide gets into the river, listed as one of the nation's most-threatened by conservation group American Rivers, it would kill the fish. Acid released from mining could also harm the environment.

The mining company says the process is safe, and has promised to fill the open pit with water, converting it into a lake. Opponents say it is a way to avoid having to fill the mine back in. They say the risks outweigh the benefits.

Montana has owned the site since 1899. Spokesman Dennis Gross said the project was "on hold, under review". He referred further questions to Jay Vogelsang, president of the Montana Tech Foundation, who declined to respond.

Montana Tech may ultimately see its money. The state senate last month weakened the cyanide ban and called for another vote next year.

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