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Feds seek 20-year mining withdrawal at Little Rockies cleanup site
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Feds seek 20-year mining withdrawal at Little Rockies cleanup site

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More than 2,600 acres in the Little Rocky Mountains degraded by past gold mining are being proposed for a 20-year withdrawal by the Department of Interior.

“That will allow us to continue with the water work up there and to protect all of the reclamation activity that’s been done in the past,” said Tom Darrington, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Malta office.

As Darrington noted, the Zortman-Landusky Mine has already undergone extensive reclamation work to treat toxic runoff that includes heavy metals, nitrates, selenium, and cyanide, but a lot remains to be done. The BLM estimates “reclamation contracts will total about $70 million and involve moving millions of tons of waste rock and treating hundreds of millions of gallons of water over the next 20 years.”

Under the proposed withdrawal, no new hardrock mining could take place during those 20 years. In 2000, the agency withdrew more than 3,500 acres in the area from further mining. That withdrawal expires this year, prompting the new proposal.

“These public lands need to be protected to enable ongoing reclamation work as quickly and cost effectively as possible,” said BLM Montana state director John Mehlhoff in a press release.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is a partner with the BLM on the reclamation efforts. Agency spokeswoman Moira Davin said, “DEQ is evaluating the effect” of the proposed withdrawal “and we anticipate it will continue to protect reclamation efforts on public lands at the former mine site.”

Cleanup is in the hands of the state and federal agencies because the mine operator, Zortman Mining Inc., filed for bankruptcy protection in 1998. The company’s reclamation bond covered only a portion of the work needed to repair the area after years of cyanide heap leaching, a way to extract small amounts of gold from tons of rock using cyanide. When the state took over cleanup at the site the work was estimated to cost $100 million and could be required forever.

According to DEQ’s Abandoned Mine website, a $13.8 million trust fund was established to construct and operate three water capture and treatment facilities. A settling pond was also built in Swift Gulch to retain water draining onto the adjacent Fort Belknap Reservation. The water is then treated at one of the plants, which uses a wind turbine to fulfill some of its power requirements.

“That seems to have helped that a lot,” Darrington said.

The cost to the state runs $2 to $2.5 million a year. BLM has contributed anywhere from $400,000 to $800,000 toward the water treatment work.

Although the 20-year withdrawal would halt any hard rock mining, it would not preclude the BLM from allowing mining for materials like sand and gravel.

“BLM believes that whoever discovers locatable minerals on public lands claims those riches, even if BLM would rather reclaim the land instead,” said Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel for Earthworks, in an email.

Earthworks and the Fort Belknap Community Council challenged Montana and BLM’s final reclamation plan. The outcome of that challenge was an agreement that identified a scheduled process for proceeding with clean-up plans, obtaining additional funding sources for cleanup and addressing data gaps, according to the group.

“The consequence is that communities near Zortman-Landusky still live with mining pollution, and taxpayers — not the polluters — have to pay the cleanup bill,” Mintzes added. “We need to hold mining companies accountable. This means updating our mining laws and protections to give BLM a polluter-funded clean-up source with the clear powers to choose reclamation over new mining.”

For two years the BLM acreage will be closed to new mining claims as the agency seeks public input and conducts an environmental analysis. The study will help Department of the Interior officials determine whether to approve the 20-year withdrawal.

The BLM is accepting public comments on the proposed withdrawal. A virtual Zoom meeting will be held Dec. 2 at 6:30 p.m. Participants can log in at: http://ow.ly/UfdK50BKWsZ The meeting ID is 161 123 1600 and the passcode is 683324.

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