Although the flow of acidic, metals-laden water from old mines at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River has been dramatically reduced after a decade of rehabilitation work, the streams will probably never meet Montana water quality standards.

“That’s due to the natural background of the area,” said Mary Beth Marks, the Gallatin National Forest geologist who oversaw the reclamation. “The water never met water quality standards up there.”

Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Bozeman-based environmental group, said those involved in the project knew all along that the area could never be restored to a pristine state. Yet he hailed the work as a huge success and an example of how such mine reclamation work should be done throughout the West.

“This is an example of a win-win situation,” he said. “The company didn’t lose any money, the land has been largely reclaimed, and it won’t be mined again. Yellowstone has been protected, and the public gained a lot from its investment.”

Billings resident Mike Whittington, who has represented the Beartooth Alliance conservation group at the table, praised the relationship between the Forest Service, the public and other agencies.

“I think the work this summer will pretty well wrap it up,” he said. “From the public’s perspective, it’s gone very well.”

 

Expensive cleanup

 

Reclamation of the mining district began in 1999, after the federal government acquired the property from Crown Butte Mining Inc. to halt the company’s planned gold mine at the site. In exchange, Crown Butte Mining acquired the Otter Creek coal tracts in Eastern Montana, which are now being considered for development. As part of the deal, a $22.5 million fund was created to pay for reclamation of the New World Mining District.  The fund grew with interest, and $23 million has been spent, and another $5 million remains to finish the work.

Although only minimal construction work is planned for this summer, water monitoring will continue for several years on Daisy, Miller, Fisher and Soda Butte creeks, all headwater streams for the Yellowstone River.

The mining district, located at elevations from 7,900 to 10,400 feet, covers 25,600 acres. The remote area is surrounded by the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness on three sides and Yellowstone National Park to the west. Historic open-pit and underground mines disturbed about 50 acres of land in the district, with tailings and mill sites near Cooke City spread across another 17 acres.

As part of the reclamation, 27 old mine adits have been sealed, tailings piles capped and denuded mountainsides and old roads revegetated. As one example of the documented improvements, there was a 62 percent decrease in metal concentrations in Daisy Creek during spring runoff after the McLaren pit was capped in 2003. The Glengarry adit, which was the No. 1 polluter in the area with highly acidic and metals-laden outflow, received a state of the art closure that almost completely eliminated water outflow, Marks said.

As a sidelight, Marks said, the Republic Smelter outside Cooke City was cleaned up, removing toxic lead waste. Although not part of the Crown Butte project, the work added to the overall improvement of the area, she said.

 

Mineralized mountain

 

Marks said pioneering studies of the rock in the high mountains of the Crown Butte Mining District showed that even before mining began in 1869, streams bubbling to the surface in the area were acidic and contained high levels of heavy metals such as zinc and copper.

“You have a very mineralized mountain area,” Marks said. “Prior to mining it was high in metals going into the streams. But mining exacerbated the problem, opening more area to water and precipitation.”

The mining district is also at the headwaters of the Stillwater River, an important source for irrigators and outdoors enthusiasts in Stillwater County. Fisher Creek, which was heavily polluted by the Glengarry Mine, drains into the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River. Partly because of the metals, creeks draining from the mining area contain few aquatic species until the water is diluted farther downstream.

 Marks said she is pleased with the work she oversaw.

“This was definitely a big puzzle, being adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, the public interest and involvement of state agencies,” Marks said. “Frankly, 10 years later it feels good to have gotten as much done as we did.”

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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President Obama’s proposal to cut funding for the Abandoned Mine Land Program could stall a project outside Cooke City that was expected to kick into high gear this summer. The site is along Soda Butte Creek, a tributary to Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar River.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has its 33-acre McLaren Mine mill site cleanup project out for bid. The project is estimated to take four to five years and cost up to $10 million. The cleanup would be funded by Abandoned Mine Land dollars.

Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester as well as Wyoming Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi have written to the president requesting that the program be funded.