15 April 2011

Superfund News for the Upper Clark Fork River Basin

[The following post is modified from my Montana Public Radio commentary on behalf of the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee.]

It must be springtime: Green bitterroot rosettes dot the Butte Hill; furry catkins decorate the pussy willows behind my house; and it’s pledge week on Montana Public Radio. Oh yes, and in Butte we woke to several inches of fresh snow yesterday.

It’s a busy time for Superfund in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.

The Beal Mountain project, an open-pit gold mine, operated in the 1990s. It was billed as a state-of-the-art mine that would boost the economy without harming the environment. The company declared bankruptcy, as gold mining corporations always seem to do, when the price of gold went down and the ore petered out. (photo of Beal open pit below by A Berger)

The bond proved too small to cover the cost of closure and cleanup. To date, the National Forest has spent nine million dollars on cleanup and estimates another forty million to complete the fix. Meanwhile, selenium and cyanide poison the aquifer and native cutthroat trout, and it costs five hundred thousand dollars a year to maintain current cleanup operations. (project map below from U.S. Forest Service)

Beal Mountain drains to German Gulch, an important tributary of Silver Bow Creek. Like all abandoned open pit mines, it is a ticking time bomb and a perpetual reminder of a failed technology. As one of the last strongholds of native Westslope Cutthroat Trout in the Butte area, we can only hope that pollution from this mine doesn't wipe them out. (photo below: Westslope Cutthroat Trout in German Gulch Creek by EcoRover)

Superfund cleanup in Butte appears stalled despite mounting public pressure to deal with failed remedies at the Montana Pole Plant and Parrot Tailings. At the pole plant, mine timbers were treated with highly toxic organic chemicals that polluted soil and groundwater. Arco, now Arco-British Petroleum, was ordered to begin cleanup in 1993. The low-cost in situ cleanup has not worked, and large amounts of soil need to be excavated to remove threats to human and environmental health. (photo below from NBC Montana)

Lucky for Butte, we have a handful of environmental activists that hold Arco-BP and EPA accountable for failures and bad decisions. Some work with the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee or CTEC. Like CFRTAC, CTEC is a citizens’ group that works with the agency to promote public education and participation in the Superfund process. Civic leaders such as Professor John Ray, a political science and communications professor with Montana Tech (photo from Tech web site):

There are other routes to realizing our duties as a citizen. Fritz Daily, a former legislator involved with Superfund for the past thirty years, is a member of a group that has filed a lawsuit against the State of Montana regarding the name of Silver Bow Creek. At its headwaters, the Anaconda Copper Company and the city of Butte long ago began referring to the creek as “the Metro Storm Drain.” The name change was never official. Sadly, the state accepted this designation and now defends it in court. (Photo below of Metro Storm Drain/Silver Bow Creek by Chris Gammons )

The rhetorical power of this hat trick is evident. By referring to a stream as a storm drain, the stream may be treated as an industrial sewer instead of as a protected natural resource.  Thus the people of Montana – especially Butteians – are denied the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

As Fritz Daly and other members of the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition assert, this is an important issue that affects all Montanans. We simply cannot allow state government to arbitrarily rename public waterways in ways that undermine the Public Trust Doctrine and our right to enjoy natural resources.

A new gold mine is slated to begin commercial production next year in the Highland Mountains south of Butte. Though currently an underground mine, Senate Bill 306 would allow this and other ventures to operate as open-pit gold mines and ship ore to cyanide leach facilities. Senator Murphy of Cardwell, where the Golden Sunlight open-pit mine and failed cyanide leach tanks/tailings ponds are located,* is the sponsor. But it has also attracted support from other legislators, such as Jon Sesso  a pro-mining, anti-environment Democrat from Butte. The Governor has vowed to veto this bad idea, so by the time you read this, SB 306 could be dead. 
(Jon Sesso photo from KTVQ)

(Governor Schweitzer with his VETO branding iron, photo from The Missoulian)

Open-pit gold mines? Bad idea. Failed technology.

When this commentary aired on Montana Public Radio, I incorrectly stated that Golden Sunlight (GS) had leach pads. Instead, GS employs large, 900,000 gallon leach tanks and open tailings ponds. Since 1983, the tanks and ponds have leaked tens of millions of gallons of cyanide solution, severely polluting the local aquifer and water wells. I thank Tara Mastel of the Jefferson Local Development Corporation for helping me clarify this.


Sean E said...

An anti-environment, pro-mining democrat from Butte, of all places...
Great post Pat.

secret agent woman said...

It chills my soul that there are Democrats who are anti-environmentalists.

Anonymous said...

It must be pledge week in every states. Ours just got done.

My husband looks on a lot of superfund sites, so I understand the problems your area is having. Good luck!

Merri said...

I honestly don't see how anybody can be anti-environment. How can one be anti-environment??? I was working near Bridgeport CA one year when a gold mining company just up and abandoned their claim after it didn't produce enough gold, leaving a poisoned mess behind. doesn't this all go back to some obscure late 1800's mining law that still exempts mines from cleaning up their messes? Anyway, it's sad.
- The Equestrian Vagabond

Arija said...

It is tragic for the world when fly-by-night companies or huge corporations with massive clout can destroy our environment willy nilly. We have the same broad scale problems here.

troutbirder said...

It's an ongoing never ending fight against big odds and a stacked deck. Eternal vigilance is required. Here we won some and lost some but in the north country the spirit of Sigurd Olsen and Aldo Leopold has gained a lot of traction among Minnesotans in general.

Janie said...

Mining companies seem to get away with monstrous pollution routinely. It's a sad state of affairs.