The Senator, the Star, and One Big Gold Mine

Over the past three or four weeks letters from Robert Redford have been dropping softly into the mailboxes of the A-list Hollywood liberals. The 10-paragraph letter flails at Republican plans to rape the environment, and concludes with an urgent plea to send money to the Montana Democrat, Senator Max Baucus.

"It is important," Redford writes, "to rally around key leaders who share our commitment to maintaining the integrity of our public lands and the safety of our land, air, water and food." By letter's end Redford has managed to convey the impression that Baucus is up there with John Muir and Rachel Carson as a guardian angel of green America. A significant contribution, Redford urges, would "help Max and the environmental health and safety issues critical to the kind of future we envision for ourselves and generations to come."

If Baucus needs a star to rouse the Hollywood liberals, Robert Redford is certainly the ideal man to pitch his virtues. Redford lives on a ranch in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. He has established his own environmental foundation, Sundance, and has offered himself as an impresario for environmental dispute resolution. Since he filmed Norman Maclean's trout-fishing novel A River Runs Through It, Redford has made the sanctity of wild rivers a particular concern. The Sundance Foundation has given large amounts of money to Blackfoot Challenge, an organization set up to protect and restore Montana's Blackfoot River, the stream that runs through Maclean's book.

By the time Redford came to Montana to make A River Runs Through It, the Blackfoot River had been badly trashed by logging and by a big mine run by ASARCO. There were few trout left and the river's canyon was heavily scarred with clearcuts. So Redford shot many of the film's scenes on the Yellowstone and Gallatin rivers further south.

Over the past few years, though, the Blackfoot River started to heal, thanks largely to the aggressive work of local environmental groups, such as the Clark Fork Coalition and the Montana Environmental Information Center. Through lawsuits and citizen campaigns these organizations forced ASARCO, a multinational mining enterprise with a grim eco-rapsheet, finally to begin a cleanup of its toxic mine site. Now some cutthroat and bull trout runs have returned to what Maclean christened Montana's "holy waters."

Then last summer, Phelps Dodge, the mining colossus, announced it would soon begin work on what it heralded as the largest open-pit gold mine in North America. The mine, dubbed the Seven Up-Pete, will be located in the headwaters of the Blackfoot River, where it tumbles out of the Scapegoat Wilderness to join the Lander's Fork. By the time the mine is tapped out there will be a hole in the earth a square mile across and a thousand feet deep. This monstrous cavity will rival the Berkeley Pit outside Butte, a hundred miles or so to the southwest.

At Phelps Dodge's Seven Up-Pete mine, nearly a billion tons of dirt and rocks will be gouged and blasted out, crushed, dumped into heaps, and then saturated by water laced with cyanide, a process that leaches small flecks of gold from tons of rock. Already, exploratory excavations at the site have resulted in the dumping of millions of gallons of arsenic and lead-contaminated water into the Blackfoot River.

"The Blackfoot was coming back to life," explains Karen Knudsen of the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition. "But this mine, with its toxic sediments, acid drainage, and 600-foot-tall waste piles, virtually assures the death of the river."

Phelps Dodge and its partner, Canyon Resources, expect to gross $4 billion from the mine. If the price of gold rises, the haul may soar to as much as $10 billion. More than 80 percent of the gold extracted from the site will be used to make trinkets and jewelry. And when the gold runs out in 12 years, the companies will leave behind cyanide-sodden dirt for all eternity, just a few feet from what will by then be the lifeless waters of the Blackfoot River. When the Anaconda Copper Company abandoned the Berkeley mine, it left behind a $1 billion price tag for cleanup of toxic mining wastes.

Part of the land alongside the Blackfoot now scheduled for extinction by the mine belongs to the Sieben Company, an 80,000-acre sheep ranch owned by the Baucus family. The Baucus clan now stands to make a great deal of money, since the Sieben Ranch will take home 5 percent of the value of any minerals extracted from their land. The family will also be compensated for the cyanide heap-leach piles, waste pits, and smelters constructed on their property.

The Sieben Ranch is managed by the Senator's brother, John Baucus Jr., who also serves as president of the Montana Wool Growers Association. The Senator maintains a financial interest in the ranch and receives regular dividend checks from the company.

Given the awesome amount of boodle due to be collected by the Baucus family, it is not hard to understand why the three-term senator, formerly chairman and now ranking Democratic member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has never uttered a cautionary word about the Phelps Dodge mine, despite widespread outrage from ranchers, environmentalists, and business leaders across Montana. Indeed, in his 18 years in the U.S. Senate, Baucus has not displayed the slightest interest in taking on the mining companies. The Senator has described himself as an unrepentant "friend of mining."

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