Saturday I went down about 3 and 1/2 miles into the center of a mountain. My husband has a friend who works at the local palladium (used to make catalytic converters) and platinum mine (one of only three in the world) and we got an invite to the annual Employee Appreciation Day tour. How could I pass up a chance to go into the kingdom of the trolls, workplace of the 7 Dwarves, and inspiration for the dark kingdoms in Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy?
The bus ride from downtown up the Boulder River to the mine took about an hour and we got lucky. We were hit three days ago with a very early winter snow storm with 8 inches in town and 3 1/2 feet up in the mountains and at the mine. Saturday was bright and sunny and the roads were clear. The ride is always gorgeous but it was a winter wonderment yesterday although it was hard on the cows, horses, elk, deer and turkeys that we passed as they pawed and scratched to find some grass or grain to eat. With the temperatures already rising, tomorrow would be much easier for the critters. And most ranchers were spinning out some hay to tide them over.
On the hour ride a safety film was played and a safety instructor went over the basics of how to conduct ourselves in a hard rock mine. “”Oh boy what have I got myself into?” I thought, as my mind started plotting a Bruce Willis movie where he has to save a bunch of tourists who were trapped in the Escape Chamber at the bottom of the mine. It didn’t help that I’m working out a deal for a client of mine to do “The 33”, a movie about the trapped Chilean miners who in 2010 had to spend 69 days a half mile down in the earth. They were a half mile down and we were going a lot further down. Yikes! I looked around at who to cast as the a**hole who drives people nuts and steals the last Coke and energy bar when nobody is looking.
Once we arrived at the mine, we entered the administration building and got our protective gear; hard hats; impenetrable gloves, flashlights, eye protectors, and metal toe shields. Oh, and ear plugs. Each person also has access to an individual device like a airplane oxygen mask that converts carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide, if, for example a fire breaks out. It gives a person about an hour of air. Time to find one of those escape chambers. If there is an emergency, there is a “Stench Warning” in which a gas is emitted that sends a rotten stench through the air since miners may be working in the dark with ear plugs on. Not sure I got all those instructions right, but then I’m still not sure about how to inflate those life vests under the airplane seats.
The journey down was in a long train made up of individual small square cars with room for about 4 to 6 people in each. It was pitch dark and chilly as we rumbled along with nothing to see but light bulbs, wires, and tubes. Not quite a Disney World ride; no pirate ghosts but at least no annoying speaker system playing “It’s a Small World” although I started humming to myself, for some reason, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash followed by “16 Tons”.
Once we arrived about 17 minutes later, we were shown around the shop area and also shown different types of machinery. There was one massive machine that bored the holes into the rock for the sticks of dynamite. I asked where it was manufactured and turns out Sweden makes a lot of these hole making machines that can cost a million dollars. Tasmania makes some of the underground bulldozers they use to scoop up the muck from which the precious metals are extracted. They run around a half million dollars.
After an hour or so tramping in and out of different tunnels and watching guys operating heavy machinery, we loaded back into the train to take us back up to the top. The journey home was much slower as we were going up. They also admitted they were going slower on account of not wanting to possibly get derailed with a bunch of tourists on board. It was at least 30 minutes and it was pretty darn chilly. I was glad I brought warm gloves and a sweater and jacket, but many of the people had just worn sweatshirts. The girl next to me looked kind of miserable, but the miner across from me was catching some shut eye. I passed the time reading “Econned” by Yves Smith on my I Phone.
We arrived at the top and got a great lunch of spaghetti and salads. Then we piled back on to the buses and headed down the mountain and back to town.
Some of these miners come from over two hours away every day on the buses, work their shifts, and ride back home which leaves as little as 6 hours sleep. But the pay is good and the work is “honest” as they say.
So no trolls. No pick axes. Just some lean looking regular guys in yellow hats and plastic glasses.
As a footnote, back in 2000 the Stillwater Mine and the citizens of Sweet Grass and Stillwater Counties brokered a conservation deal. It is called “The Good Neighbor Agreement”. Called ground breaking, it has become “a model” by the NY Times and “a testament to how people can find common ground,” by the Billings Gazette as it seeks to create jobs while at the same time protect the rivers, streams and agricultural land.
I was here when the discussions began about how to protect the river where they shot “The River Runs Thru It” and it was highly contentious. (There was a doofer element that yelled loudly that any kind of interference with the company would cause the mine to go out business, but that’s another whole chapter.) But thanks to the hard work and common sense of some thoughtful rancher conservationists, they hammered out an agreement and to this day regular monitoring of the operations at the mine continue. There is also no man camp and so no “company store” that Cash lamented about. It is also considered one of the safest mines in the world and the supervisors are continually looking for ways to improve safety.
For the local miners, this is for many, if not most, their first exposure to unions and the idea of government mandated safety rules. It has been a long time since the Anaconda copper mine made Butte, Montana, “the richest hill on earth” while at the same time creating the nation’s largest super fund site with the toxic Berkeley Pit as a lasting reminder of corporation bad practices gone amuck. Montana mines were also the most dangerous in the country. But many of these young miners are the grandsons and granddaughters of dairy and wheat farmers and cattle ranchers and not the kin of the rugged Fins and Irish men that wrestled minerals out of the earth a hundred years ago. They are new to the idea of solidarity but you can hear it in their voices as they describe with pride how they look out for one another each and every day. So no whistling while they work or “Hi Ho, Hi Ho’s”, but as we tourists settled in for the night in our warm homes in town, somewhere deep below the mountains the sounds of 1950s rock and roll are keeping a weary miner going.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I am not a big fan of resource extraction or, more accurately, resource depletion. I always ask, “to what purpose?” However, this mine was being opened no matter what, so the best thing to do was to make sure it was done right and the community benefited from it beyond having “some good jobs.” Local people do have jobs, but many miners come from far away and send their money home. So the idea that it would create some sort of boom town was suspect from the start.
Many communities just shrug their shoulders and say, “I’m sure they’ll do the right thing.” But the local activists were determined to keep this valley as clean as possible so they went to work. And a lot of hard work it was; unpaid hard work.
But they got ‘er done.