APEC’s visit to Yellowstone Talc Mine
Story by Abbie Digel, film by Emily Stifler
It was a rainy, cold Monday in Ennis, Montana. A team of pick-up trucks transported about 20 delegates from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Big Sky up a windy, dirt road to the Yellowstone Talc Mine, just south of Ennis in Madison County.
The largest talc mine in North America, the Yellowstone Mine produces 250,000 tons of talc each year. Direct exports of all minerals and ore from Montana totaled more than $150 million in 2009.
After the product is mined and sorted at the Yellowstone mine, it is sent to Rio Tinto Minerals’s milling facilities in Three Forks and Sappington, both in northwest Gallatin County. Rio Tinto, the umbrella company for these Montana operations, has an international reach as far as Australia and the UK. The Rio Tinto Group honors best practice land use, and the APEC delegates were there to join the conversation as part of their mining task force.
Mining has great economic advantages in-state and internationally. According to the National Mining Association, coal and mineral mining operations support almost 1.5 million jobs in America. Both coal and mineral mining operations sustain thousands of communities by providing high-paying jobs and tax revenue used to build roads and keep schools open. The Yellowstone mine itself employees approximately 30 members of the greater Ennis and Sheridan communities, and most of those employees have been working at the mine their entire careers.
Formed in 2007, the APEC Mining Task Force designed a set of principles to use as guidelines for the industry. One principle is to “pursue policies that enhance the sustainable production, trade and consumption of minerals and metals thereby improving the economic and social wellbeing of our people.” On the tour, Jeff Errett, Mine Manager, explained that sustainable practices is exactly the case at the Yellowstone Mine.
According to Errett, the unique mine uses a dry process and very little energy. No discharge drains into the neighboring Madison, and by using gravity in sorting practices, the mine saves on energy costs. They use the coefficient of friction to sort the ore, separating the talc from the host rock, dolomite. It’s called the “ski jumping philosophy,” where the talc ‘jumps’ off a ramp and onto its own conveyor belt, splitting from the dolomite.
Talc is very common, said Marsha Mellon, a lab technician at the mine who has worked with talc for 33 years. Talc, metamorphosed from dolomite, is used mostly in consumer products like polymers, paints, ceramics, chewing gum and cosmetics (because of its high absorbency). The most familiar form of the mineral is baby powder, which has brought up several controversies surrounding health risks, especially ovarian cancer in women.
Talc has been used safely for centuries and is recognized as safe by the National Toxicity Program (NTP) and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). The World Health Organization’s International Agency on Research for Cancer (IARC) has also determined that there are no risks associated with workplace exposure.
However, in 2006, IARC ruled that there is limited evidence that the use of talc-based body powder is a possible risk factor for ovarian cancer. But, the ruling places the use of talc in the same category as many other common practices, such as drinking coffee.
Some talc contains fibers, usually asbestos, that cause health risks. There have been some cases in the United States where talc tested positive for these fibers, but they have all closed since, said Susan Keefe, VP of communications for Rio Tinto.
“There are impurities in all mineral deposits, and asbestos is sometimes associated with talc, but, importantly, our talc does not have fibers, and we test for that religiously,” said Keefe. They test the ore, the finished product and the ambient air to ensure its purity. Samples are also tested in outside labs for confirmation.
Responsible product stewardship is a priority for Rio Tinto operations worldwide: “We make sure our products are safe for people and for the planet. We take that part of the job very seriously,” said Keefe. The Yellowstone Mine won the ‘Sentinels of Safety’ award two years running.
According to Rio Tinto, Montana puts out the purest talc product in the world. The mine’s managers were proud to exemplify their best practices for the APEC delegates, and for the community.
Pat Downey, Director of Montana Operations, said, “The processes that were shown in the tour are a small hint compared to the technical edge that we have. It was a great advantage to show the needs of mining in society, and it’s a privilege to operate in this state.”