KELLER, Wash. – For centuries, Billie Jo Bray’s ancestors gathered red-orange pigments for rock drawings and face paint from Mt. Tolman, a peak rising above the Columbia River near Keller, Wash. The vivid hues, the San Poil Indians believed, offered both blessings and spiritual protection to those who wore them.
“Our people believe it’s like part of Mother Earth. It’s like blood, and it oozes out,” said Bray, a San Poil, one of 12 tribes that make up the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
The pigments have long interested geologists as well. The mountain contains one of the world’s largest deposits of molybdenum – a metal used to harden steel and dye plastics – along with copper and small amounts of silver, gold and other minerals.
Nearly 30 years ago, an open-pit mine was proposed to extract Mt. Tolman’s hidden wealth, potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties to the Colville Tribes. But the venture fizzled when molybdenum prices tanked. Now, the metal is trading at near-record levels, and the Colville Business Council – the tribes’ governing body – is revisiting the idea.
On March 18, the tribes’ members will weigh in with a referendum vote. If the referendum passes, it would lift a 1995 moratorium on mining on the reservation and allow the Colville Business Council to seek requests for proposals from mining companies.
The issue is stirring debate on a reservation historically wary of mining.
The Colville Reservation was cut in half in the late 1800s, when gold was discovered in the northern portion. Tribal members received $1 per acre for the land. More recently, opposition from the Colvilles helped kill a proposed open-pit gold mine in nearby Okanogan County. The tribe is also involved in a lawsuit against Teck Cominco, a Canadian mining firm, over the cleanup of heavy metals in Lake Roosevelt.
But the molybdenum deposit also offers tantalizing prospects for the Colvilles.
“We’re sitting on one of the richest ore bodies in the country,” said D.R. Michel, a member of the Colville Business Council. “It could really improve the quality of life on the reservation.”
According to estimates from past drilling, Mt. Tolman contains more than 1 billion tons of molybdenum and copper ore. Over a projected 40-year mine life, mineral royalties could pump hundreds of millions of dollars into tribal coffers, according to a consultant’s report. The mine would also create 350 to 450 high-paying jobs.
“Think what you could do with that money for the people,” Michel said.
Schools, jobs and health care are all desperately needed on the reservation, he said. Unemployment is at 40 percent, and many of the tribes’ members lack access to basic health care. The revenues could also create a permanent fund for long-term needs, Michel said.
For Bray, however, the only possible vote is no. Mt. Tolman was sacred to her ancestors, who lived in the Sanpoil River valley for thousands of years. In the late 1800s, Bray’s great-grandfather and his sister received allotments of land at the base of Mt. Tolman. The serene meadow ringed with pine trees is still in the family, and Bray often spends time there with her children.
“Unlike other tribes that were relocated, we never left,” said Bray, a 41-year-old mother of seven. “We still hold the spiritual connection to the land.”
Last week, a dozen members of Visions for Our Future gathered in Bray’s tidy living room. The group formed to protest the logging of ridgetops on the reservation and is now campaigning against the mine. Members include Bray’s mother, her 88-year-old grandmother and her niece. Protecting natural and cultural resources is their goal, the women said.
Tul’meen, Mt. Tolman’s Indian name, even means “red paint” or “spiritual place,” they said.
“There’s paint in the mountain that our ancestors used, and some of our people still use it,” said Hazel Perkins, Bray’s mother. “It wasn’t for make-up or cosmetics. … They wore it in battle, in ceremonies and for prayer.”
The group will hold a four-day camp-out in Keller this weekend to draw attention to the proposed mine. Representatives of the Okanogan Highlands Alliance, a non-native environmental group, will be at the gathering, along with members of the SHAWL Society, which lobbies for the cleanup of closed uranium mines on the Spokane Reservation.
“We’re inviting anyone who wants to pray for the mountain,” Bray said.
Mt. Tolman has been fenced off since the 1980s, when AMAX Mining Co. planned to build an open-pit mine there. A tribal referendum at the time supported the project. Moly, as the mineral is known in the industry, was trading then at nearly $13 per pound. At those prices, the mine would have paid royalties to the tribe of nearly $4 billion over a 40-year mine life, according to company documents generated at the time.
The mine would also have carved off Mt. Tolman’s top and side, disturbing 3,700 acres. Even after the mine closed, an 850-acre “pit-lake” would have remained in the excavated hole. Bray’s meadow was slated for a waste-rock pile dump.
Then, molybdenum prices dropped below $5 per pound, and stayed there for nearly two decades. Today, the metal is trading in the $30 per pound range.
Mt. Tolman is rare, in that it’s one of few deposits in the world where molybdenum is the primary metal, according to the consultant’s report. With world demand driving up moly prices, the tribe is getting feelers from mining consultants and firms. Even if molybdenum prices dropped to $8 to $10 per pound, Mt. Tolman could still be profitable, Michel said.
Sonny George was suspicious of mining plans in the 1980s, and he remains skeptical.
“They weren’t telling us anything,” said George, a retired tribal employee and Visions for Our Future member. When AMAX was in the picture, rumors flittered around the reservation – that each tribal member would receive $20,000 to $40,000 from the mine. Or that royalty checks would amount to a paltry $600 per year.
George said he questioned who would really reap the mine’s economic benefits. Concrete information about mine pollutants and long-term impacts was also missing, he said. AMAX prepared an Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed mine in 1981. However, environmental reviews weren’t nearly as rigorous then as they are now, said Ann Maest, a consulting chemist from Colorado.
Maest was hired to review the 1981 EIS with funding from Earthworks, an outside environmental group. Her report concludes that acid mine drainage could be a potential concern at Mt. Tolman. The host rock contains pyrites, which, when exposed to air and water, create an acid that leaches other heavy metals out of rocks, Maest said.
Any effort to revive the mine proposal would require a new EIS and scrutiny through the federal permitting process, noted the tribes’ consultant.
George said he fears that mining Mt. Tolman would open the door to additional mine development on the reservation. “We’re mineral-rich,” he said. After Mt. Tolman, “it could be Mineral Ridge, Little Moses, Strawberry Mountain and Frost Peak.”
Mining has a tainted place in Indian history.
“There’s been some huge fights in our history, and the birthing of our nation, and a lot of it has to do with gold and silver,” said Robert Shimek, mining project coordinator for the Indigenous Environmental Network in Bemidji, Minn.
Mineral strikes sparked many of the U.S.-Indian wars, noted Shimek, who works with native groups in the U.S. and Canada. In addition, many reservations are polluted from past mining practices, he said.
“These modern mining processes, they’re so huge, and the potential for creating a toxic brew is so great,” Shimek said. “We can’t just pick up and move on like everybody else. … Our history, culture and spiritual structure is tied to the land.”
Michel is the first to acknowledge the proposal is controversial. That’s why the Business Council opted for a referendum, he said. A series of seven informational meetings is planned for tribal members at the end of the month, with locations ranging from Seattle and Yakima to Omak and Nespelem. Michel expects a big turnout.
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