July 22, 2012 8:00 am • By ROB CHANEY
LINCOLN – A treeless ridge separates a million cubic yards of toxic mine waste from a potential new repository along Highway 279.
The possibility of a temporary road connecting Mike Horse mine tailings to a proposed dump site could improve the $39 million cleanup project’s acceptability. It hasn’t mollified many Lincoln-area residents unconvinced the tailings need to be moved at all. But others like Paul Roos, a third-generation Lincoln resident and outfitter, believe it’s necessary to protect the headwaters of the Blackfoot River.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the most comfortable solution,” Roos said just before flying over the mine site on Thursday. “But the supermajority of scientists who’ve looked at this believe that material has to be moved. The biggest argument for this over all the other alternatives is it’s the only one with the possibility of off-highway delivery. That’s an extremely big factor.”
The Mike Horse mine produced a little gold and a lot of lead in its heyday before and after World War II. Its tunnels bore into the upper end of the Mike Horse Creek drainage, roughly two miles east of Rogers Pass off Highway 200. The tailings fill the upper end of the basin, impounded by an earthen berm.
A catastrophic rainstorm in 1975 collapsed part of the berm, sending tons of toxic waste into the Blackfoot River. The heavy metals killed most of the fish in the river, requiring decades of recovery.
Last spring, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality pumped nearly 50 million gallons of rain and groundwater out of the berm to keep it from failing, at a cost of $350,000. The near-miss intensified the two-year effort to find a better home for the waste.
DEQ and the Helena National Forest announced their choice of Section 35 – the 360-acre property along Highway 279 – on July 8. The land belonged to Stimson Lumber Co., which offered it to the state in trade for expenses incurred cleaning up toxic waste at its Bonner lumber mill.
The decision frustrated Lincoln residents like Mike Grimes, who lives just across the highway from Section 35.
“This whole thing is wrong-headed,” Grimes said on Friday. “We’re still weighing our options.”
Grimes headed a neighborhood association that is considering legal challenges to the proposal, although he said the leadership is now reassessing its position. He wonders why the Forest Service apparently ignored public comments warning about water problems with the Section 35 location and its financial impact on surrounding property owners.
He said a haul road over the mountains would be an improvement, but noted the proposed route would go right through even more suitable land now owned by the Forest Service.
“If they put it a mile upgradient from me, I wouldn’t oppose it,” Grimes said. “But that would mean they’d have to do an EIS, and I don’t think they’ll do that.”
The Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition has monitored the Mike Horse tailings for years. Director Karen Knudsen said the organization is still waiting to see conclusive studies of Section 35’s groundwater and drainage conditions. She also is leery of early plans to truck the waste along highways 200 and 279 – an effort that would send dump trucks every three minutes, 10 hours a day for three or four years during the area’s 100-day work season.
“If you’re going to move that material, it’s going to be big to keep it off the highway,” Knudsen said while flying over the Mike Horse drainage with Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon. “I understand where Mike’s coming from. Somebody’s going to be impacted wherever this goes. I want the best site for long-term protection of the watershed and the water. And this is the only site where we can stay off the highway.”
Doing so would probably take a $1 million bite out of the project’s $39 million budget. That money came from a court settlement with former mine owner ASARCO, which declared bankruptcy in 2006. DEQ will pay for the work under Forest Service supervision, since the federal agency owns most of the affected land.
Shelly Haaland is the construction manager for DEQ’s Mike Horse project. She said the road idea has not had an in-depth design review yet. And while it would eliminate much of the impact for those along the highways, it might not shorten the mileage or work time.
“We definitely have concerns about running haul trucks through there,” Haaland said. “We don’t know what grade we can maintain or how steep it will be. In winter that ridge has a huge snowdrift. That could shorten the work season and lengthen the amount of time it takes to get done.”
DEQ researched 13 sites around Mike Horse to put the tailings, as well as several options for keeping them in place or putting them back in the tunnels whence they came. Haaland said the area appears to have lots of available space, but most are either too steep or too wet to safely hold a million cubic yards of sediment – half the amount removed from Missoula’s Milltown Dam reservoir.
DEQ Director Richard Opper said the repository would use about 30 acres of the 360-acre property.
“Obviously placing toxic waste in an area can affect property values,” Opper said. “But nobody can say for certain what’s going to happen to those values – just estimate. We’re talking contaminated dirt that doesn’t smell, no dust, a lot less nuisance than a landfill.”
Assuming the site isn’t blocked by a lawsuit or other delay, design and construction work on a repository should be done by next fall. Hauling would begin in 2014, and last three to five years.