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Buried treasure: Mining for platinum and palladium in Montana
JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette StaffStillwater Mining’s main mine in the Beartooth Mountains near Nye has been in continuous operation since 1985. The Nye mine and its sister mine on the East Boulder are the only U.S. mines producing rare platinum and palladium metals. Frank Corkish of Billings drills six feet into igneous rock 1-1/2 miles beneath the surface at Stillwater Mining Co.’s Nye mine. A miner drills between 20 and 60 holes a day.Daniel Turk, concentrator manager, stands in front of a grinding machine in the Nye mill.Platinum and palladium ore from the mine is ground down to the consistency of sugar, then processed chemically to separate the metals from impurities.

Tom Castle, the bespectacled and grizzled operator, clangs the steel door shut on a cage suspended by massive cables.

He uses a bell system to signal the hoistman that he's lowering his crew of 25 miners.

The journey into darkness begins.

The miners step out about 200 stories below the surface of the Beartooth Mountains and into the only platinum and palladium mine in the United States.

With safety an ever-present concern, miners wear helmets, carry radios and self-rescuers with emergency air. Everyone also carries a numbered brass medallion, called a miner's dog tag. The brass usually won't melt even in intense fires.

At the bottom of the shaft, the dark, the cool, the dust and the damp close in quickly. The mind senses the pressure of the earth, a feeling of burial.

Chief geologist Ennis Geraghty and mine foreman, Jason Sindelar, hop on a subterranean tractor and drive down through arched rock tunnels.

They're heading toward the mine's mother lode: The 41 W 8400 stope is producing twice the grade of platinum and palladium as 60 other sites in the Stillwater Mining Co.'s Nye mine.

Deep work in deep shafts At the junctions of drifts (ore-producing tunnels), huge overhead fans blast cool air and noise.

The tractor crawls deeper west into the mine and around a sharp corner, a blast of humidity hits. The temperature quickly climbs 20 degrees to near 80. Cool intake air from the surface in the last tunnel gives way to hot exhaust air.

Overhead cables and conduits carry lifelines to the depths - water, compressed air and cement paste for backfill. Wrist-thick electrical cables carry power deep into the Nye mine.

At 3,500 feet below the surface, a thin string of overhead lights and the miners' headlamps are the only lights punching through the dark.

Miners talk to each other with contorted necks, their foreheads pointing their lamps downward while their eyes tilt up to make eye contact.

The etiquette is as old as mining: Never shine your light into another's eyes. Break the rule, and a miner will punch out your lamp to teach you a lesson.

The temperature, noise and humidity levels vacillate quickly as the tunnel twists. Only the darkness remains constant.

Stillwater Mining employs 1,100 people at the Nye mine. Another 500 work at the newer East Boulder mine or in the former cow town of Columbus, home to the company headquarters and the smelter.

At Nye, 80 miners work each shift, two shifts a day.

For 10 hours, miners drill holes in tough rock and insert explosives.

The geology of money Top miners joke that they can smell the sulfides or ore-bearing parts of the rock.

The sulfur and metal melange acts as a "groupie" or magnet attracting the silver-colored flecks of platinum and palladium.

And flecks is the right word. The amount of the precious metals in the ore below the northern border of Yellowstone National Park is minuscule.

It takes 160 miners a day to coax 1,400 ounces of ore out of 2,000 tons of rock.

Still, it's enough.

"Seven-tenths of an ounce in a ton of rock pays for everything," Geraghty says.

Deep and dilute The J-M Reef is one of a handful of known reserves of platinum and palladium in the world.

When some of the earth was a liquid mass 2.7 billion years ago, platinum and palladium trickled through a lake of molten rock in what would someday rise up as the Beartooth Mountains.

Little happened for millions of years as the earth took its sweet time cooling.

As the rock cooled, the heavier metals like chrome gathered together, and so did lighter metals like platinum and palladium.

Then 65 million years ago, the earth buckled, forcing an edge of the rock plateau nearly vertical. Platinum and palladium sat in the middle strata with heavier metals near the base.

The rock lake was shoved skyward and northward for four miles. The rest of the vein stayed deep and horizontal running north past Columbus.

Geologists joke that they could drill a mine shaft through the floor of the New Atlas Bar in Columbus and find platinum and palladium.

There's just one problem. The deposit under town stayed deep, about 15,000 feet down, too deep to mine.

The mother lode is fickle After such a violent geological history, finding the rare and well-hidden platinum and palladium was a challenge.

The J-M Reef, where the metals rest, is one of the skinniest ore veins in the earth, just 6 to 7 feet wide.

The reef sits toward the top of the uplift and runs 26 miles from west of Red Lodge to west of the Boulder River.

Like a ribbon of hard Christmas candy, the metals wind through some of the oldest rocks in the earth's crust.

"It's really a phenomenon," Geraghty says, displaying obvious fondness for the deposit that is one of the rarest and most challenging ore bodies in the world.

Pioneer miners in the 1870s searched these mountains looking for riches. Most were fooled, thinking that the brown stains on the Beartooths made by the copper-nickel deposits were gold.

And this particular vein has been fooling people ever since.

The mountains near Nye were mined for chrome from 1918 to 1962.

In fact, the mighty Anaconda Copper Co., the forerunner of Montana Power Co., ran one of those chrome mines. Chrome was a strategic metal during World War II and the U.S. government heavily subsidized the mining.

In the 1970s, astute geologists from Johns Manville Corp., who had seen platinum and palladium in a similar formation in South Africa, started searching for the minerals near Nye. For six years, they searched the river drainages, using the latest geochemistry tricks to find traces of these metals in the sediment.

When their theory was proven, it took another decade of hard work in this hostile high country. Helicopters were used to transport equipment for drilling test holes along the 26-mile reef to map out likely ore pockets.

"It was an incredible technical success in the 1970s to find this deposit. It was literally hands and knees geology to find this thing," Geraghty says.

Miners have been coaxing platinum and palladium from these mountains continuously since October 1985.

How much life left? Managers at the Stillwater Mine near Nye have mapped out enough proven reserves to sustain mining for at least the next three years.

The full potential ore pockets could last 75 years, according to Geraghty. The trick is to mine the ore economically.

"Only 35 percent to 40 percent of the vein meets economic criteria now," he says.

For geological and other reasons, changing the economic equation is difficult.

"We're extremely labor intensive here. It's hard to mechanize mining, especially in the Stillwater complex," Geraghty says.

The miners' life Miners drill and blast the hard rock at 60 sites in the Nye mine.

The good part of the job is the money. Miners working seven days on, with seven days off, can earn between $50,000 and, for a few, $100,000 a year.

But those 10-hour days underground take their toll. Mining is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Since the Stillwater mine opened 18 years ago, 10 miners have been killed.

The work is so hard physically that most miners don't last much past age 50.

George Berg, 32, of Absarokee has been a Top Dog, a Miner 1, for five years.

With sweat beading on his face, he lifts a 100-plus-pound jackleg drill into place. The 6-foot steel bit bites into the rock. The stone wall seems to weep as the smoking drill sprays sharp chips and water.

Berg drills about 20 holes per shift.

In a bigger cavelike room nearby, Justin Feller uses a mechanized drill that allows him to drill 60 holes a day. Then he gets to the favorite part.

Feller attaches detonators to the yellow sticks of dynamite, technically emulsified explosives. The explosive comes 50 sticks to a box and he empties several boxes, shoving two, three, even four sticks into each hole.

A skilled miner is rated for accuracy, hitting the same depth and spacing on each hole. His most valued skill is knowing how to stay safe and work smart, as well as hard.

When the miners leave, they check their brass medallions back onto the board telling the world they are above ground. The explosives are blown at the end of the shift.

The blast starts at the center of the 60 holes and spirals outward in millisecond delays - a single "BOOM" to the ears.

Four-hundred pounds of explosives blast free 210 tons of rock. Miners try to advance 9 feet per shift by drilling and blasting and mucking, then drilling and blasting again.

The next crew drives huge loaders, dumping the rock into trucks, which carry the cargo to the shaft through the twisting, dark tunnels.

Trucks haul out 70 percent of the rock. The balance comes by rail. The ore is lifted up to the surface in a shaft next to the elevator while people come down in the cage.

Through the whole cycle, bolting the rock wall is probably the most dangerous.

After drilling is finished, miners take heavy chain-link mesh, lift it overhead and bolt it to the arched roof with steel plates.

Bad rock, miners say, comes off without warning in big chunks they call "Cadillacs."

"You don't have to move far, just so it misses you," Jeff Exner of Columbus says with serious understatement.

As the noise and the sweating drag on below, at the mill, 5-inch grinding balls crush the rock to 2 inches, then 3/8 inches, then smaller.

When rock moves through the last grinder, it is the consistency of sugar.

Through two dozen processes from crushing to chemical baths, the ore's concentration is improved.

Platinum and palladium grains stick to chemical bubbles, which are skimmed off, and dried.

The powder is trucked 40 miles to Columbus where the smelter boils off impurities like iron and calcium sulfate.

When the smelter work is finished, the platinum and palladium ore is 800 times purer than its raw state in the crushed rock.

The ore is ready for Detroit and its life in a catalytic converter.

Jan Falstad can be contacted at (406) 657-1306 or at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com.

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