HELENA, Mont. – Mining is such a major part of Montana's legacy that the words "gold and silver" in Spanish are still emblazoned on the state seal.
But mining's golden days are long gone. The industry has diminished over the years amid declining prices and tougher environmental rules, and now accounts for only about 3 percent of Montana's economy.
The mining industry hopes a Nov. 2 ballot measure will change that. Voters will decide whether to loosen environmental restrictions on how companies can mine for silver and gold — a proposal that supporters say will send a message to the mining industry that Montana is open for business again.
Critics contend the measure will leave the state vulnerable to catastrophic water pollution.
At issue is whether companies should be allowed to use cyanide (search) in their mining operations. The process involves rinsing piles of crushed rock with cyanide, a potent chemical that percolates through the rock and draws out small deposits of gold or silver.
The ballot measure would repeal a ban that voters enacted in 1998.
The measure has stirred strong emotions in Montana and led to a major fund-raising effort backed almost entirely by one mining company. Recent polls have suggested most voters oppose overturning the ban, although the margins vary considerably by poll.
On Montana's Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, "No on I-147" signs are in the tribal council chambers, at the tribal college and at a senior center.
The measure has a high profile on the reservation because of the Zortman-Landusky gold mine complex on its southern border. Pollution problems from the abandoned cyanide operation are the top environmental issue for the reservation's tribes.
"If that goes through, the first thing they're going to do is start mining up here again," said Ken Lewis of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council. "The jobs aren't worth the damage it's going to do."
The campaign organization supporting the measure has received at least $2.2 million in cash and contributions from Canyon Resources Corp. of Colorado, more than four times the contributions to campaign groups fighting I-147.
Canyon Resources wanted to develop a cyanide gold mine near western Montana's Blackfoot River, but plans came to a halt when voters passed the cyanide ban six years ago. Still aiming to develop the mine, the company projects 14 years of metal production and employment spanning at least 20 years.
"If I-147 were defeated, it officially sends the message ... `stay out of Montana"' to mining companies, regardless of whether they want to use cyanide, said Tim Smith, manager of a mine in the Helena area.
Montana is the only state banning the cyanide process, said Warren McCulloch, an administrator in the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
With gold prices in decline, the three major mines that used the cyanide process quit mining shortly before the 1998 ban. At all the sites, environmental problems persist in varying degrees.
But the mining industry touts cyanide as safer than other solutions for extracting gold and silver from ore and says the proposal includes safeguards.