Colville Vote a Resounding "No" to Mine

News item, March 24, 2006

By K.C. Mehaffey, Wenatchee World staff writer

NESPELEM Members of the Colville Confederated Tribes gave a definite "no" to a proposal to develop a molybdenum mine near Keller, and their elected leaders followed suit with a resolution not to mine.

Tribal members voted 1,254 to 847 against a proposal to mine Mount Tolman, southwest of Keller. Both poll and absentee ballots were counted and certified Thursday. The Colville Business Council then went into special session and passed a resolution not to explore a mining proposal.

The mine would have employed about 450 people and produced annual royalties of up to $240 million. It also would have disturbed more than 3,700 acres on Mount Tolman. The mountain southwest of Keller is considered sacred among some Colville members.

"Money doesn't drive everything", said Harvey Moses Jr., chairman of the tribes who said he voted against the proposal. He added: "We're concerned about our environment, and our culture and traditions."

American Indians who live on the reservation and voted at polls Saturday were even more opposed to the mine--455 against to 169; while absentee ballots, which includes both on and off reservation voters, tallied 799 against to 678.

"I was dancing all the way out of the chambers," said Billie Jo Bray, a Keller resident who campaigned against it. "We feel our prayers were answered," she said.

She had earlier said it makes no sense for the tribe to develop a mine on the reservation when it officially opposes the Buckhorn Mine near Chesaw, and has taken the Canadian firm, Teck Cominco, to task over mining pollution in Lake Roosevelt on the Columbia River.

Molybdenum--at its current price of $33 a pound--could have brought the tribes up to $240 million a year in royalties, according to a pamphlet outlining impacts of a mine on Mount Tolman. The price of molybdenum started to climb in 2003 after hovering under $5 a pound for decades. It is used as an alloy in cast iron and steel to make them harder, stronger and corrosion resistant.

Sonny George, a tribal member from Inchelium who also campaigned against the mine, said such a large-scale project would have had tremendous impacts on all the surrounding communities, from tiny Keller to the Grand Coulee area. Yet few of the high-paying technical jobs would have gone to untrained tribal members, he said.

Moses said he believes the proposal failed because mining has a very bad name among the tribes of the Colville Indians. It was the discovery of gold in the 1800s in northern Okanogan County-- called the North Half by tribal members--that led the federal government to take back 1.5 million acres of the Colville Indian Reservation.

"As a tribal member, and as a tribal leader, I'm just glad it's over with, and I'm glad it didn't pass. We need to look for other revenues for tribal income that isn't intrusive to our tribal lands," Moses said.

K.C. Mehaffey can be reached at 422-3850, or 997-2512, or by e-mail at mehaffey@wenworld.com