SAVOY – The view from the east rim of Spearfish Canyon here is predictably breathtaking.
Mark Nelson didn’t avoid that complicating reality as he stepped near the craggy edge and gazed down across the landscape.
“This is, of course, awesome,” said Nelson, a geologist and partner in a proposed gold-mining venture that would edge up to about 500 feet from that very rim. “It just drives home the point of what we’re focused on protecting.”
From that rocky ledge on a sunny late-April afternoon, the realities of surface mining for gold seemed as distant as the jet contrails slicing the blue sky above. Yet this is mining country, pockmarked by old gold-mining digs and trenches and underground shafts. And the still-operating Wharf large-scale surface gold mine is just a mile and a half away.
About that distance in the other direction, off the rim and down into the canyon, Savoy and the tiny shapes of its well-known lodge and restaurant attracted travelers off the tiny ribbon of U.S. Highway 14A, to one of the most fetching tourist destinations in South Dakota.
There in the middle, Nelson and business partner Dana Bender talked about a gold-mining plan that they believe can fit in, somehow.
“We’re South Dakota people,” Nelson said, referring to a larger band of project partners. “And we care very much about this canyon.”
But the proposed Deadwood Standard Project will get an especially close look from state and Lawrence County officials. Environmentalist will look harder.
Members of the Black Hills environmental group ACTion for the Environment worry about noise and dust and discharges from the mine. And there’s the location near the rim to focus on.
“You walk out of The Lodge, across the street to the Latchstring Inn and look up at the rim, and there it is,” group spokesman Gary Heckenlaible said. “It’s amazing. I figured one of these days when gold prices got high enough, somebody was going to get interested in that area. So there they are.”
With gold at more than $1,600 an ounce, it’s easy to get interested. Getting the needed permits, a process that is just beginning, is more complicated.
The land in the Deadwood Standard Project, named for a mining and milling in the area during the early 1900s, was heavily mined long ago. But enticing gold ore remains. And it’s relatively shallow.
Most ore is within 35 feet of the surface. Some of the shallowest ore is closest to the canyon rim, which will help limit impacts there, Nelson said.
“There it is literally about 10 feet from the surface,” he said.
Although the ore reaches closer to the rim, Deadwood Standard will voluntarily stay behind the 500-foot buffer zone, limiting proximity impacts. The plan also is to reclaim behind new mining operations, moving topsoil so native plants have a better chance to grow in reclaimed areas, Nelson said.
Excavations would be less than 25 acres at a time, with a total of 124 acres mined during the projects 8- to 10-year life. That is small compared to the Wharf mine nearby, where a permit allows disturbance of more than 1,400 acres.
The proposed mine would use 18 concrete leaching vats to extract gold from ore crushed on site. The gold-laden sludge would be transported out of state for final processing.
It’s a system designed for minimal impact on the environment, although there are always the potential for leaks and discharges. The acid-mine drainage problems at the old Gilt Edge Mine east of Lead show how badly things can go wrong.
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When Brohm Mining Co. went bankrupt in 1999, it left open pits full of acidic, polluted water and millions of cubic yards of acid-producing waste rock. The area is now an EPA Superfund site.
Nelson guarantees that Deadwood Standard won’t end up like that. He points to its smaller size and environmentally mining plan, well-experienced regulators favorable geology.
Deadwood Standard doesn’t have the acid-producing pyrite common at Gilt Edge, Nelson said. Instead, the dominant limestone counters acidity.
“This project has no acid potential and a very high neutralization potential,” Nelson said. “This project doesn’t have the potential for acid-mine drainage.”
Mike Cepak, mining engineering manager for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resource in Pierre, said a planned mining project at the Deadwood Standard years ago would have shipped ore to the now-closed Richmond Hill Mine for processing, because that mine had an acid problem.
“The Deadwood Standard ore would have added buffering to the acidic Richmond Hill ore,” Cepak said.
But any sizable gold mine has problem potential ranging from leaks from vats or pipelines to storm-related runoff. DENR watches for impacts on surface and ground water, air quality and wildlife habitat, as well as noise and dust.
Along with a conditional-use permit from Lawrence County, Deadwood Standard needs a state mining permit, surface-water discharge permit, water rights, air-quality permit and possibly a groundwater discharge permit, Cepak said.
Nelson said the project is ready to meet the requirements for all the permits, adding that surface water is at the site. In addition, century old mine sites, some of them quite dangerous, will be reclaimed during the project, he said.
And along with the project design, the forest and topography will help limit noise problems, Bender said. The Wharf ore crusher was operating at the time not far away, without discernible sound.
“What do you hear? Wind in the trees,” Bender said.
That’s what Spearfish Canyon homeowner Gary Lillehaug loves to hear at his home down in the canyon below the rim. And usually he does.
“Wharf is right up in that area, and I don’t hear them except on a very rare occasion,” Lillehaug said
As a retired Homestake Gold Mine employee, he understands the values of mining to Lawrence County and likes the idea of more jobs, tax revenue and economic multipliers. So he’s open to the project, if done right.
“There are negatives in everything,” he said. “I just hope people go into this with an open mind.”
Lead Mayor Tom Nelson hopes so, too.
“This would be a big boost to the county,” he said. “And I think they’ve done their homework.”
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.