July 1980 - VOLUME 1 - NUMBER 6
Indians Fight AMAX ProjectAmerican Metals Climax (AMAX) plans to- extract nearly a billion pounds of molybdenum from Mount Tolman, a sacred site of the Colville Indians in Washington state. Traditional Colvilles, however, are waging a campaign to stop AMAX, fearing that the mining company will ruin their environment and destroy their cultural identity.
For as long as anyone with the aid of several thousand years of Colville oral history can remember, Mount Tolman has been sacred-a natural shrine in a religion whose church is the earth. It is a place where visions are received-a gateway to the next world.
For a decade and a half, believers of another sort have had their eyes on the mountain. To American Metals Climax (AMAX), the religion is profit and the manna is molybdenum, the most profitable of the company's mining operations.
Mount Tolman is laced with low-grade molybdenum, enough to make it the largest mine of its type in the world, an operation that would turn the mountain, which rises 1,700 feet above surrounding valleys, into a 1,200-foot deep open pit running two miles to the east and west, one mile to the north and south.
AMAX anticipates taking 43 years to consume the mountain, during which the company would extract some 900 million pounds of molybdenum and 1.1 billion pounds of copper. Since the two, together, make up only 1/400 of the mountain's mass, two valleys would be filled with waste rock after AMAX extracts what it wants.
AMAX produces nearly half the world supply of molybdenum, essential in the making of hardened steel used in many weapons systems. AMAX Molybdenum, Nickel, Tungsten and Specialty Metals Division in 1979 contributed 35 percent of the company's sales and capital expenditures, but brought in 73 percent of its pre-tax earnings,
While the company is the world's leading producer of molybdeaum, it also produces substantial amounts of coal, copper and iron ore, as well as other metals. AMAX earned $264 million in 1979 on sales of more than $2.9 billion.
Molybdenum is profitable enough for AMAX to offer members of the Colville Confederated Tribes $6,000 a year each, plus money for tribal-government programs, for the right to consume Mount Tolman. Despite such terms, a sizable number of Colvilles have organized a legal and political campaign which they hope will preserve the mountain. Along with the mountain, they argue, they will preserve not only their gateway to the next world and their identity as a people, but more prosaic things, such as the quality of their air, their water, their health and that of their children.
The intensifying conflict over the mining of Mount Tolman is one of several controversies in the American West which involve exploitation of natural resources on Indian land. For the traditional Crow and Northern Cheyenne of Montana, the issue is coal; for several Indian nations of the Southwest, it is uranium. Figures vary, but it is reliably estimated that of energy reserves recoverable at present prices in the United States, half the uranium and a third of the low-sulfur coal lie under American Indian land.
And Indian opposition is nothing new for AMAX, either. Three other tribes currently have suits in progress against AMAX, including the Northern Cheyenne and the Crow of Montana over coal rights, and the Papago tribe of Arizona over the use of ground water supplies.
By mid-June, AMAX had signed a, mining lease with the Colville tribal government which, by the time the mining operation begins producing in large quantities five years from now, would add 20 percent to the company's 1979 molybdenum production. The Preservation of Mount Tolman Alliance is preparing to file suit in Federal District Court, Spokane, alleging voting irregularities in a tribal referendum which approved plans to mine Mount Tolman. According to sources within the alliance, the suit, when filed, will argue violations of civil rights, specifically the right to vote in free and honest elections.
The Mount Tolman Alliance maintains that the tribal government, established by the United States government following the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, does not represent a majority of the Colville people. As on many other large western reservations, many traditional people boycott elections, regarding the government as a colonial instrument. Elections frequently draw much less than half of eligible tribal membership.
Such was the case three years ago when 875 of the tribe's 3,500 eligible voters participated in a mining referendum. According to the tribal government's returns, which have been questioned, 567 voted in favor of mine development, 308 against.
The Mount Tolman Alliance asserts that the tribal government had stacked the cards in favor of mining by vaguely wording ballot questions, biasing pre-election information in favor of mining, and using an out-of-date list for absentee ballots, among other things. In the meantime, AM AX has stressed the monetary rewards of a pro-mining vote on a reservation where unemployment routinely runs at 30 percent and more, and where a $6,000 annual check would more than double the incomes of many people who can find work. Payments would also be made to adult tribal members living off the reservation.
The alliance has called for a new referendum, following a full debate of the issue, and is preparing (in addition to the civil rights suit) to go to federal court to seek an injunction which could stop AMAX preparations for mining until the tribal government concedes.
If and when opponents of the mining plans go to court, they will find themselves in much the same position as the Northern Cheyenne of southeastern Montana, whose homeland lies atop some of the richest remaining coal reserves in the United States. The Cheyennes' tribal government signed several coal-mining leases in the middle and late 1960s which were overturned after several years in the courts. As with the Colvilles, the Cheyennes' opposition to mining didn't organize until corporate planning was well along, largely because land had been explored and leases signed with a minimum of fanfare.
AMAX had already been sizing up the mountain's potential for 14 years when, in the summer of 1978, the company signed a preliminary agreement with the tribal government. The deal allowed intensive exploration on the mountain, which the company in its 1978 annual report said might contain 300 million pounds of molybdenum. With a little more exploration, AMAX tripled its estimate, and hurried to complete an agreement which would make of Mount Tolman the largest molybdenum mine in the world in terms of the amount of ore moved and the third largest, in terms of actual production.
At the southern end of the disappearing mountain, AMAX plans to build a 194,000 square-foot concentration plant to separate molybdenum and copper from ore carried to it by the trucks. The plant would be roughly the size of three football fields. From the concentrator, the copper and molybdenum would be transported to an as-yet-undesignated smelter.
Once mining plans leaked out, opposition surfaced among traditionally-oriented Colvilles, who joined forces with non-Indian environmentalists. The alliance has become a familiar one in large areas of the West. Aligned with the companies that want to mine, rejecting the complaints of the traditionals, some tribal members see mining royalties as one way out of grinding poverty. The traditionals answer that it will be the Indians, all of them, who will be impoverished two generations from now, when AMAX marches on, carrying the last pounds of molybdenum and copper, leaving behind two valleys full of tailings, polluted air and water and a dispirited people nursing broken-down luxury cars.
The division between "traditionals" and "progressives" is as old as the treaties which came with United States rule throughout the West more than a century ago. In the days of the cavalry, traditionals called progressives "hang around the forts." While progressives generally believe in accommodating the needs of corporations seeking mineral reserves, the traditionals regard people as (to quote the Mt. Tolman alliance) "caretakers of the earth." .
To traditionals, land is very important, and the exchange of money for land, in any amount or proportion, is scorned not only because Indians have often been burned in such exchanges. According to the traditional view of life, land is not regarded as a commodity with cash value. "Sell land?" remarked Tecumseh. "As well sell air and water. The Great Spirit gave them in common, to all."
On many of the larger reservations (including the Colville) traditionals maintain the centuries-old structure of chiefs, councils and ceremonies, officially unrecognized by the United States, which established its own rules for reservation governance in 1934, under the Indian Reorganization Act.
During the early 1950s, traditional and progressive Colvilles debated federal proposals to "terminate" the tribe by dividing the commonly-held land into private tracts and dissolving the tribal government, paying Indians individually for lost land. The Colvilles rejected the proposal, but a few other tribes, such as the Klamaths of Oregon, were terminated. Follow-up studies of the Klamaths painted a grim picture of broken marriages, alcoholism and "per cap" payments quickly exhausted on cars, motorbikes, booze and other consumable expenses.
So, despite the attraction of "per caps" ranging up to $6,000 a year from mining, many Colvilles believe they will lose in the long run if the mountain is mined to the extent planned by AM AX.
Many Indians and non-Indians who moved to the reservation from the urban areas of the state have already begun Y making plans to move out, fearing that boom-town conditions will increase crime in the area and destroy community life.
Those who fear the possible social disruption of the mining project point to the oil-boom towns of Wyoming, the coal-boom town of Colstrip, Montana, and to Grants, N.M.; a town near the Navajo Nation which calls itself "the Pittsburgh of the uranium industry."
Grants' population has doubled to 20,000 since 1970, mostly because of expanded uranium mining. In 1979, the small city's 21-member police force booked 1,421 felonies, a 21 percent increase over 1978. Grants School Superintendent Howard Overby says his aging and overcrowded schools need $25 million to restore pre-boom educational quality. Other long-time residents complain of housing shortages and high rents.
Aside from social disruption, the Mount Tolman Alliance also has raised concerns over possible environmental and health hazards. The control of dust from the mining operation is particularly worrisome. Les Darling, project environmental manager for AMAX, has pledged that dust will be kept within "allowable limits," mainly by watering down the mining roads over which the giant ore-carrying trucks ride. He did concede, however, that ambient dust could increase up to 30 percent in Keller, the nearest community of any size, five miles away.
Many residents also fear that molybdenum released into the water supply could cause several forms of cancer, as well as other diseases. The alliance backs this allegation with the results of a 1974 study conducted by University of Colorado scientists. That state hosts two AMAX molybdenum mines, and the study found that drinking water near them contained abnormally high levels of the heavy metal.
The molybdenum levels, in turn, were statistically related to higher-than-usual incidence of all forms of cancer, including leukemia and other diseases of the blood, as well as high blood pressure, several digestive-tract diseases and birth defects.
Among the traditionals land is the only certainty. This is what impels persistent opposition to mining despite the promise of payments from AMAX. "Money is tempting," said one tribal member early this year, "But the future of our children is at stake here. I'd rather leave them a homeland than buy them a motorbike."
Bruce Johansen, with Roberto Maestas, co-authored Wasi'chu: The Continuing Indian, Wars (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979).