Members of the Colville Tribes were rejecting a proposal to allow mining of Mt. Tolman by a margin of nearly 3-to-1 in early election returns Saturday.
But most ballots – absentees and contested votes – remain to be counted, and the vote won’t be final until Thursday, said a tribal elections official.
In voting Saturday, 457 votes against the referendum to lift a ban on mining were cast compared with 171 yes votes. More than 1,500 ballots remain uncounted. Most of those are absentee ballots, but there are also scores of contested ballots that election workers are checking for irregularities.
The reservation is home to one of the nation’s largest deposits of molybdenum, an industrial metal used in hardening steel and dyeing plastics. With molybdenum trading at near-record prices, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation has received feelers from companies interested in mining the deposit.
Passage of the referendum would lift a 1995 moratorium on mining on the reservation, and allow the Colville Business Council to seek requests for proposals.
According to a consultant’s report, the deposit contains more than 1 billion tons of molybdenum and copper ore. Developing a mine could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties to the Colville Tribes, as well as 350 to 450 high-paying jobs, said the report, which was commissioned by the Colville Business Council.
But the proposed mine has been a bitterly divisive issue for the Colvilles, a tribe historically wary of mining. In the late 1800s, the Colville Reservation was sliced in half when gold was discovered on the northern portions. The tribe received $1 per acre for the land. An open-pit molybdenum mine would carve the top off of Mt. Tolman, a peak rising above the Columbia River near Keller, Wash.
For centuries, Indians gathered red-orange pigments from the mountain. The powdery substance, like rouge, was used for face paint and rock drawings.
“It’s a sacred substance,” Yvonne Swan said in an interview earlier this month. “Our elders tell us that Indians from distant places traveled here to gather it for use in spiritual ceremonies.”
Swan fought efforts in the late 1970s to develop a molybdenum mine on Mt. Tolman. At the time, a tribal referendum supported mining, but plans fizzled when molybdenum prices tanked.
Now, Swan’s a member of United Visions for Our Future, a grass-roots group opposing the mine. Members attended all seven of the tribe’s information hearings on the proposed mine, giving out literature opposing the mine.
Water quality in the Columbia River is also one of the group’s concerns. The mine’s scale is so large that it could have a significant impact off the reservation as well, group members said.
Hazel Perkins, whose daughter Billie Jo Bray is co-leader of United Visions, put 1,000 miles on her van, driving from Inchelium to Omak, Seattle and Yakima for the meetings.
“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist,” Perkins said in an earlier interview. “I’m a concerned citizen.”
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