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Transportation officials have pulled the plug on a controversial proposal to haul gold-laden mine waste from a reclamation project near Yellowstone National Park over Wyoming's Chief Joseph Scenic Highway and on to the Golden Sunlight Mine in Whitehall for processing.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality announced the decision Tuesday, saying new requirements by the Wyoming Department of Transportation that would have required loads smaller than what they initially planned made the cost of the hauling prohibitive. The Shoshone National Forest also suggested that environmental reviews may be required, which could have delayed this summer's hauling, said Richard Opper, DEQ director.

Instead, the DEQ will expand an existing dump site near Cooke City, even though the agency previously said the site couldn't safely accommodate the additional material.

“We had our engineers take another look at the existing depository and other areas near the site,” Opper said. “We can excavate the existing depository site deeper. What you sacrifice is some of the separation of the waste from the ground water.

“So we're sacrificing a little of the safety factor, but we're still within our comfort level of being safe,” he added.

The project had proposed moving 69,000 tons of mine waste to Whitehall using tractor-trailer rigs over the next three summers. The rigs would have hauled 38 to 42 tons per trip. The other 500,000 tons of tailings, about 237,000 cubic yards, would be stored at the depository near Cooke City.

Wyoming officials were worried about the trucks' route up and over the steep and winding Dead Indian Pass, which climbs to 8,400 feet. Although going through Yellowstone National Park would be a shorter route, commercial haul vehicles aren't allowed in the park.

“Really, the primary change that made us reconsider this project is when the Wyoming Department of Transportation said it would revise the gross vehicle weight allowed,” Opper said. “That made the project uneconomical.”

Cody Beers, of the Wyoming Department of Transportation's District 5, said halting the project was probably a good idea. He noted that after the project was announced, a DEQ meeting held in November in Cody, Wyo., drew public criticism of the proposal.

“It's good they listened because the public spoke out that night,” Beers said.

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He added that WYDOT couldn't keep the DEQ trucks from hauling, but they could require them to haul the legal limit — 117,000 pounds, which includes the weight of the truck and trailer.

The $24 million McLaren tailings reclamation project began in June and will remove a source of heavy metals contamination leaching into Soda Butte Creek. The creek flows into Yellowstone National Park's Lamar River. It is the largest abandoned mine project to date in Montana. Funding is from a grant from the Federal Office of Surface Mining Control, Reclamation and Enforcement.

The hauling project would have created an estimated 50 jobs, many of them for Montana and Wyoming truck drivers. Gold that was recovered from the mine tailings would have been used to pay for the hauling. DEQ estimated it was a break-even job.

“This was a pretty innovative idea,” Opper said. “It would have recycled the gold, but it also would have taken more driving and more diesel fuel.

“The important thing, as far as we're concerned, is we need to clean up the site.”

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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