WHITEHALL, Mont. - A major southwest Montana mine is looking to the future, but an environmental watch dog has problems with approved permits.
The Golden Sunlight Mine is about 7 miles northeast of Whitehall, a small town just to the east of Homestake Pass and the Continental Divide.
The mine is an open pit gold mine owned by Barrick, one of the world's largest gold producers.
In 2013, the company reports the Golden Sunlight Mine produced 92,000 ounces of gold. But it's near the end of its operating life; current mine projections have it mining through 2015.
Matt Dove has worked at the Golden Sunlight Mine for 4 years, but as a 20-year Whitehall resident, he knows the mine and its employees have a big impact on the community.
Dove said, "We always appreciated the fact they had good jobs and shopped at home."
We wanted to know the extent of the mine's impact, so we spoke to Tara Mastel, manager of the Jefferson Local Development Council, a local organization that tracks the mines impact on Jefferson County and Whitehall.
2011 numbers show the mine paid out $14.1 million dollars in payroll and benefits. That money translates into jobs for local businesses.
"They have probably staffed up to serve their needs there," said Mastel.
That's just one area of impact. The mine is the single largest taxpayer in Jefferson County, paying $2.5 million annually. That makes up one quarter of the county's tax revenue.
"That helps us to do a lot of different things within the county to keep out economy robust and diverse," said Mastel.
Golden Sunlight Mine owner Barrick Gold tells us currently they have plans to operate the mine through 2015 and are looking at ways to extend the mines life beyond that.
Dan Banghart, the mine's general manager told us they're looking to, "Further the engineering and evaluation of an area called Bonnie, which is just north of the mine."
Expansion requires looking at gold prices and costs to decide if it's worth expanding, as well as obtaining permits, a lengthy process.
"But all that's part of doing business," said Banghart.
Dove says expansion is important. It means the mine will continue to support the small town of Whitehall and its businesses for years to come.
"They support the local community," said Dove, "And if they're gone, we lose a lot of that support in town."
Earlier this year the Montana Department of Environmental Quality approved the Golden Sunlight Mine's plan to expand a currently operating pit and to open another. But the Montana Environmental Information Center is suing the Montana DEQ over permits.
The environmental group says the permits are not in line with Montana constitution requirements to clean up the land after mine operations are complete. They say Golden Sunlight Mine needs to fill the open pit once they are done mining and plant trees and grass.
Group spokesman Derf Johnson told us they just want to make sure the mine is cleaned up.
"There's a lot of pollution that results from mining -- any number of things that can impact the groundwater and the surface water up in the area. We need to make sure that there's adequate reclamation plans in place and require the company, before they take off so that the taxpayers don't get stuck with the bill," Johnson said.
The case is currently making its way through the courts.