BUTTE – More than three-fourths of Whitehall-based Barrick Golden Sunlight Mine employees will lose their jobs at the end of November, the mine's general manager said Wednesday afternoon.
Daniel Banghart made the announcement to staff at a meeting Wednesday morning and in a company-wide email later in the day, citing a continued weak gold market that has dipped significantly in the past four years.
About 140 employees – working primarily in the open pit operations, maintenance and processing area – will be offered severance packages, with about 34 employees remaining to support the facility’s processing and contract underground mining operations, Banghart wrote in the email.
Banghart also noted geotechnical concerns in the Mineral Hill Pit limiting safe access to open pit mining and a lack of adequate mill feed as a result of limited surface mining that proved challenging and “forced some difficult decisions.”
“Our latest strategic plan confirms that current manpower and staffing levels are unsustainable in the current business environment,” wrote Banghart. All surface mine production would end in late November and “milling throughput” would be reduced from full capacity to processing only underground ores in 2016 and beyond.
Golden Sunlight opened northeast of Whitehall in the 1980s and is owned by Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. The property lies on the eastern flank of a fault-bounded mountain range known as Bull Mountain, according to its website. The mine produced 86,000 ounces of gold in 2014 at all-in sustaining costs of $1,181 per ounce and has produced more 500,000 ounces of gold during its life.
Jefferson County Commissioner Cory Kirsch said the announcement is a double hit for the county. The Montana Developmental Center – a major employer in Boulder – will close in 2017. An estimated 250 people work at the facility.
He also said the Golden Sunlight Mine is one of the biggest taxpayers in the county.
Kirsch noted the uncertainty in the mining industry.
“That’s always the issue when dealing with gold mines; they’re tough to keep open. They all have a life … they fade in and fade out with gold prices,’’ he said.
Kirsch said the mine has had layoffs in the past, and people were eventually hired back. He’s hoping that will happen again.
In the meantime, he said government leaders will need to assess the situation and determine ways to mitigate the economic impact.
Tara Mastel, manager of the Jefferson County Local Development Corp., said she received an email regarding the layoffs late Wednesday afternoon.
She and other local government officials in the Whitehall area likely would meet soon to discuss the layoffs and how the area might rebound, Mastel said, adding that there are still positive things to keep in mind.
“We are lucky to have a great location … between Butte and Bozeman and Helena, so a lot of people here have access to those job markets,” she said.
The company plans to retain some workers at the site and that should help keep at least some tax revenue from the mine coming in, Mastel said.
She said the county has access to Hard Rock Mine tax money in a trust that can be tapped when more than 50 percent of an area’s mining workers are laid off. She did not know Wednesday how much was in the fund.
Butte-Silver Bow County was able to tap some of that money when Montana Resources suspended mining operations in Butte in 2000 due to sliding copper prices. The mine started up again in 2003.
Banghart said in addition to a severance package, employees would receive out-placement services to assist them with healthcare and employment options outside the company.
He said the news delivered to employees was “very unfortunate. It’s not good news – that’s for sure.”
State Rep. Ray Shaw, a Sheridan Republican who represents parts of Jefferson County, said the mine was outside of his district but many of its workers live in his and he knows them. He was heading to Whitehall early Wednesday night for a meeting.
Shaw said the mine’s layoffs not only affect communities in Jefferson County but also in Butte.
“A lot of people shop in Butte and then take all the vendors and contractors that are supplying the mine – wow, that is huge,” he said.
The loss of 140 jobs will likely send ripple effects throughout southwestern Montana, Shaw lamented, saying “These people are trying to raise families and in this day and age, that’s tough to do even with a job.”