By MATTHEW BROWNBILLINGS, Mont. (AP) a¿¿ Montana environmental regulators said Friday they are backing a Canadian company's plans to expand a 200-worker gold mine near Whitehall that has been hard-hit by dropping gold prices. After studying the company's expansion plans over the past year, state officials released a proposed permit change that would allow one new mining pit and expand another at the Golden Sunlight Mine. Approval would allow the mining to continue to 2017. Without it, the mine owned by Barrick Gold Corp. of Canada is expected to cease operations in 2015. Department of Environmental Quality Director Tracy Stone-Manning said conditions attached to the agency's permit recommendations will make sure that polluted water from mining is captured and treated. The agency considered but rejected an alternative plan that called for backfilling the new "North Area" mining pit. Stone-Manning said filling the pit would have eliminated the option to use it as a backup system to capture seeping wastewater, in case the primary water collection system failed. Leaving the pit exposed also allows access to that main system should it need to be fixed, she said. "We not only immediately see if they are failing, we can capture it before it causes harm," she said. Barrick's original proposal also called for leaving the North Pit open. New mining would occur on 68 acres and produce almost 53 million tons of waste rock. Thursday's decision requires Barrick to craft a plan to use the wall of the new mine pit for bat and raptor habitat should the permit be approved. The company also must put a ground movement monitoring system in place to ensure safe access to the pit. Barrick spokesman Lou Schack said the DEQ's additional requirements would add value to the project. In 2012, Golden Sunlight produced 98,000 ounces of gold.
Yet the mine's long-term future is uncertain after gold fell by more than 25 percent over the past year, to less than $1,200 per ounce.Last month, the mine announced a round of employee buyouts that will leave it with 193 workers at Golden Sunlight by the end of the year. There are also about 50 contract workers at the mine at any given time, Schack said. "We're in a bit of a tough market right now, but we certainly hope to keep Golden Sunlight running," he said. Schack said the company was pleased with the timeliness of the state's permitting process, which began last fall when the company submitted the application to change its 1972 permit. Looking beyond 2017, Barrick hopes to soon begin exploration work on land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that is adjacent to the Golden Sunlight mine. BLM approval for the work is pending. Any future mining activity would need further approval from federal and state regulators.