BUTTE, Mont. (AP) — One man’s trash is another man’s gold.
Case in point: Owen Voight and Paul Antonioli, independent miners who scratch less-than-meatball-sized amounts of gold out of piles of dirt on Montana mountainsides.
Although the work involves digging through trash, Voigt calls it a treasure hunt.
So does Golden Sunlight Mine.
Through a program that began in 2011, Barrick Gold Corp.-owned Golden Sunlight has paid out more than $45 million to small miners in the last seven years, company officials say. All of it has been for gold dug out of old mine dumps — of which there are tens of thousands around the state, according to both Voigt and Antonioli.
Golden Sunlight processes the small miners’ ore, turning it into nuggets worth something.
Golden Sunlight is located northeast of Whitehall. And because it is “the only game in town,” Voigt and Antonioli say its location affects where small miners can go for the gold.
Both Voigt and Antonioli agree that there are old mine dumps in other parts of the state that would be worth the extraction if the cost of hauling it back to Whitehall, 25 miles east of Butte, were not so daunting.
Voigt, 59, got into the business in 2012 when another small miner showed him the ropes. Before that, he worked as a private investigator. But the niche market of mining old claims proved to be a good fit. The research skills he acquired from his previous profession proved handy in the new one. He spends much of the winter researching maps and combing through old claims.
Paul Antonioli, 63, got into the business from the opposite direction. He was born into it. His grandfather, Pete Antonioli, owned small mining claims around Philipsburg and started a silver mill there in the 1930s.
Some Butte residents might remember Pete Antonioli’s name because he once owned the M&M Café. Paul Antonioli jokes that Butte’s most famous greasy spoon was his grandfather’s greatest gold mine.
Antonioli knew from an early age that metal mining was too much in his blood to ignore it. He got a degree in geology from Montana Tech and roamed across rock formations wherever the mineral deposits took him—to Alaska, Nevada and Idaho—to explore for mining companies. He says he has multiple relatives who work at Montana Resources and that his kids are getting into the mining business, too.
Now Antonioli is retired. He calls his small mining business “a side thing.”
Even though Voigt, a Helena-based entrepreneur, shared his secret with The Montana Standard as to how he finds the best dumps still holding their weight in gold, Voigt is not worried about competition.
The secret is partially map work. Voigt knows he’s struck a vein, so to speak, when he locates a mine that dates back to 1885 or before.
That’s the year cyanide came to Montana, Voigt says. Mine officials say cyanide is a very efficient process — both cheaper and quicker — to get gold out of the ore. That means there’s a lot less gold left in mine dumps after that 1885 date.
Since miners began exploring Montana to look for gold in the 1860s, Voigt has a 20-to-25-year window.
“That’s what I live on is that window,” Voigt said earlier this month.
How does it all work?
Once Voigt has found a dump that will bring a high enough return to be worth the work, he picks out old scrap metal and sends several test samples to a lab for analysis. Not all of it comes back positive for what he’s after.
The dirt that lacks gold gets repurposed to make a road or build a cabin pad for the landowner. If Voigt can find no purpose for it, he places it on the hill, adds a layer of topsoil, and reseeds. Voigt says he has found a few old miner candle stubs in the heaps of dirt. Calling that a special find, he has hung onto most of those.
But the stuff that’s got the goods in it he hauls to Golden Sunlight. The former open pit mine has a large gold processing plant.
In a good year, Voigt might move 200 to 500 ounces of gold in 3,000 to 5,000 tons of ore to Golden Sunlight. The work can vary. There are some years when Voigt has worked on just two dumps. Other years, he has hauled off 17 dumps in one larger project, he says.
He might recover only 0.18 ounces of gold or less to a ton of ore. About 30 tons make up one truck load.
One ounce is about the size of a one-inch meatball. Less than 20 percent—or less than one-fifth of a one-inch meatball—is practically a pinch of salt in a ton of ore.
One truck hauling 30 tons of ore to Golden Sunlight is likely carrying about five meatball-sized amounts of gold within it.
With gold prices hovering around $1,200 an ounce, one truck is carrying approximately $6,000 worth of gold.
The intensive leaching procures four percent more recovery, Lloyd said.
“That’s very significant for us,” Lloyd said.
It’s also significant for a small miner.
After all the grinding and leaching, the gold wends its way to the fire assay lab. There, Tom Monforton, a Golden Sunlight assayer for over 30 years, works alone in a very hot room making first what miners call a bead of gold.
It looks just like what it sounds like: like a bead, made of gold.
“The bead tells us how much gold and silver are in the sample,” Monforton said.
The ovens reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which turns the gold, now mixed with a lead mixture, into what looks like molten lava. Monforton pours the lava-like mixture into ceramic cups. When it hardens, Monforton hammers out what mine officials call a “button” of gold.
He then puts the “buttons” into bone-ash cups that absorb the lead, leaving behind a fractional amount of the fine stuff.
It doesn’t look like much at first, but by the end of the month, the small miners’ findings are mixed with Golden Sunlight’s gold to become gold bars.
Although Golden Sunlight’s open pit closed in 2015, the mine still extracts gold from underground tunnels that are built like a spider’s web behind the open pit walls.
The small miners don’t get to see their own gold. They sign contracts with Golden Sunlight. Golden Sunlight retains a small percentage of the profit to offset the processing cost. The small miners get the rest.
Small miners have hauled in around 700,000 tons of ore to Golden Sunlight since 2011, company officials say.
“It’s quite a process,” Lloyd said.
What does Golden Sunlight get out of it?
Dan Banghart, Golden Sunlight general manager, is proud of the program. He says it doesn’t just put money into the pockets of small miners, create a few jobs, and add to the state’s tax revenue — it also means countless old mine dumps get removed from random spots on both private and public land.
“That’s 700,000 tons that would be sitting out there in the environment,” Banghart said.
Officials with the Department of Environmental Quality say that how much the environment benefits can depend. The agency says there are times when it’s a “win-win” situation, and at the very least, the small miners remove big piles of dirt out of places on property where it might otherwise just sit.
But while DEQ says the projects vary, DEQ oversight varies depending on the specifics of each site.
DEQ does not permit small miners. Small miners file affidavits instead that bind them to adhering to certain conditions. Under very specific circumstances, small miners have to bond their work. All small miners potentially face site visits from DEQ.
Voigt said he gets surprise visits and that if he doesn’t reclaim properly, DEQ has the power to shut him down. Voigt said DEQ unexpectedly dropped in on him this past summer while he was working on a site.
Antonioli, who is based out of Philipsburg, said that after he removed dumps from a portion of a project he’s still working on, aspen and willows came back on their own.
Voigt said that for one project, he cleaned up a small waterway in the process of reclaiming an old dump that came from a dormant mine . He also says his work has protected a rancher’s cattle.
Even an orphanage in South Africa has benefited from Montanans’ efforts to turn trash into treasure. One Montana business owner outside of Helena donated his royalties from a mine dump cleanup to Jehovah Jireh Haven, a home for abused and orphaned children in Alexandra, South Africa, two years ago.
Why it’s not easy
Being your own boss and turning dross to gold — what could be better? Who wouldn’t want that job?
It’s not easy money, both Voigt and Antonioli say.
Antonioli spoke of the vagaries of the gold market as well as environmental regulations in the Treasure State, which he said are too stringent.
For instance, both Antonioli and Voigt disagree with the Montana voter initiative that made cyanide processing no longer legal in the state after 1998. Golden Sunlight was grandfathered in with certain provisions. That is what makes Golden Sunlight “the only game in town” and what restricts where small miners can go, Antonioli said.
Trucking ore from, say, Lewistown in central Montana, is too expensive to be worthwhile, even though old mine dumps containing gold ore likely could be found there, the small miners say.
The work also requires a lot of hiking into mountains in all kinds of weather.
The reclamation work is seasonal. A year like the one southwest Montana has had, with a long winter followed by a long rainy season quickly followed by wildfires, can be tough on small miners. Voigt says such conditions can shorten the time he has to make a buck.
Expenses run high. A hauling job can cost Voigt $42,000 in trucking costs for one month. He pays insurance costs and hires anywhere from two to three employees to work with him at the site. In some cases, he has to build or upgrade a road to get to the mine dump. If the dump is on private land, Voigt pays a royalty to the owner.
Voigt has to front all the costs while he waits for his golden paycheck that usually doesn’t arrive until a couple of months after his first haul.
And like all mines, his profit is at the mercy of the market.
“You have to know the gold is worth more than the cost,” Voigt said. “One in six (of the projects he considers) work economically.”
All those costs considered, Voigt says he has grossed as much as $236,250 on one dump.
A gold mine in a pile of waste
Antonioli stumbled on the Mammoth Mine dump several years ago while working on another project. He began shipping ore from the Mammoth Mine to Golden Sunlight in 2011.
He estimates he has moved about 220,000 tons of ore from the site. About four years ago, the price of gold was around $1,800 an ounce.
Lloyd said the program got popular when the price of gold shot that high.
“We were getting 60 loads a day (from small miners),” Lloyd said.
This month, Golden Sunlight expects to get ore from small miners hauling from dumps near Pony, a tiny community south of Cardwell in Madison County, as well as Basin Creek, just south of Butte.
In addition, a company called Birdia LLC is planning to remove 2,500 tons of mine waste from an old dump called Birdia on Bureau of Land Management land 2 miles east of Norris. Birdia is also planning to take their ore to Golden Sunlight to process, said BLM geologist Steve Lubinski.
A call to Gene Nellis, a representative for the Birdia project, was not returned. BLM is seeking public comment on the project.
Despite the business coming into Golden Sunlight, the number of small miners bringing their ore to the mine for processing has slowed to a trickle, Lloyd said. In large part, that has to do with the price of gold, which is currently hovering around $1,200 an ounce. For many small miners, that’s not high enough to make reclaiming old mine dumps profitable.
Antonioli hasn’t been back to work at the Mammoth Mine, located in the Tobacco Root Mountains south of Cardwell, since last summer. He’s waiting and hoping the price of gold will go back up.
When it does, he’ll be climbing to 6,000 feet in elevation on rough road in his pickup truck to remove the final 20 percent of tailings that haven’t been touched since World War II.
But for now, the gold in those hills will have to wait.