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Ochenski: Miner miracle

Sometimes the magic works—Sometimes it doesn’t

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The chopper banked a hard left over McDonald Pass and headed down the Continental Divide. Vic Andersen, chief of the state’s Mine Waste Cleanup Bureau, pointed out the Luttrell Pit of the Basin Creek Mine, sitting virtually on top of the Divide, at more than 7,000 feet. “We have 150 abandoned mine sites in the Helena municipal water supply,” said Andersen through the chopper’s headset. “What do you think about using that pit as a repository to get the mine waste out of the drainage?” As someone who drinks Helena’s water on a daily basis, I thought the idea of getting the arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and other assorted mining leftovers out of my water supply sounded like a helluva good idea.

Now, a handful of years later, Andersen’s vision is becoming reality. Amazingly, in a state where miners and environmentalists have long waged war while politicians tap dance around the issues, Andersen’s idea seems to have achieved the impossible and been accepted by all sides.

Take Jim Jensen for instance. As the author of the successful initiative to ban new cyanide heap-leach mines in Montana, the Montana Environmental Information Center’s (MEIC) executive director is the environmentalist miners most like to hate. Jensen says putting mining waste on the Continental Divide intuitively seems like a bad idea, since the toxics would be sitting above everything else. But when you consider the circumstances and specific geology of the Luttrell Pit, the idea makes sense. Enviros and miners agree that one of the reasons Basin Creek’s mining operation shut down is because it was plagued by the presence of clay — which stuck to the gold particles and made it almost impossible to leach them from the crushed rock. Now, that same clay, and the geology that produced it, makes the pit plan a workable idea.

Jensen’s not the only one who thinks the plan is working. Pegasus Gold, the defunct company that operated the mine, has a bunch of creditors that would like to recoup some of the $100 million the company owed them when it declared bankruptcy in 1998. The bankruptcy court’s order to salvage the property is now producing revenue for the unsecured creditors by renting the mine’s heavy equipment to various federal, state and local government agencies trying to clean up the area’s abandoned mines. While there’s not much chance that creditors will recoup their losses, using the equipment and the old pit is generating revenue that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

The plan solved some significant problems for the plethora of government agencies involved, too. Getting two National Forests, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Land Management, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, three counties and one municipal government to agree on anything is just about impossible — let alone on what to do with an estimated 1.5 million cubic yards of toxics-contaminated soils. The Luttrell Pit, thanks to its clayey soils, provided the nexus around which a viable solution took shape as the interminable agency “turf” battles were laid aside. As a testament to the potential for this being a miracle, it was also done in something less than the usual geologic time at which government moves.

Of course, this kind of dream sequence simply doesn’t happen very often. In most cases, like Butte’s Berkeley Pit, the Anaconda Smelter, or the Milltown Dam, a full twenty years or more have passed since they were designated as some of the nation’s first Superfund sites. They have received significant attention and hundreds of millions have been spent on reclamation efforts. But for all that, the smelter and pit look about the same as they did when the smoke stopped and the trucks quit running. The Milltown Dam still squats on the Clark Fork and millions of tons of metals-contaminated soils continue to drain their deadly leachate toward Missoula’s drinking water aquifer. And, even though the Lutrell Pit plan seems to be working, there are recent indications that the reclamation of the Basin Creek leach pads have been less than successful.

The Luttrell Pit plan, while perhaps more the exception than the rule, is nonetheless worthy of our attention. As MEIC’s Jim Jensen says, “This is something that worked, and the people involved all need to be congratulated. They deserve credit when they do it right.” Jensen is right on. There are lessons in working together we could all learn from this. We could, for instance, do the same thing for Milltown Dam. It is absolutely technically possible to safely dredge and transport the deadly sludge to a sealed, capped pit and treat any liquids that leach out. The operative word is “possible.” All we have to do is get a bunch of government agencies, politicians, and officials to agree and it can be done. It is also just as possible that somehow the archaic, useless dam will be left in place as a rotting plug for the poison-filled reservoir.

Granted, having an open pit mine on top of the Continental Divide was no great idea in the first place. But given the situation, and the proliferation of mining wastes now scattered liberally throughout the surrounding drainages, it makes sense to clean up, consolidate, and manage those wastes. The Latrell Pit plan, Vic Andersen’s vision of years ago, may just show what happens when the magic works. The reticence to remove the Milltown Dam, on the other hand, shows what happens when it doesn’t.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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