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December 27, 2010 6:38 pm

EDITORIAL: Abandoned haul plan appeases concerned county

Written by Tessa Schweigert

Residents dreading the prospect of a large-scale hauling project over the scenic Chief Joseph Highway breathed a sigh of relief last week.

After a turn of events, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality abandoned its controversial plan to haul some 68,700 tons of gold mine tailings over the winding highway.

Part of a more expansive cleanup of the defunct McLaren gold mine, the Montana DEQ planned to haul the toxic material from Cooke City, Mont., over the serpentine Chief Joseph in a 315-mile journey to Whitehall, Mont., where the gold mine tailings would have been processed.

We’re thankful that haul won’t occur — mine waste instead will be kept on site in a deeper repository.

Avoided are the 24 trucks hauling mine waste per day in the summer — up to 1,700 loaded hauls in all — on the popular tourist byway. Spared is the 47-mile stretch of scenic roadway, which would have endured wear-and-tear along the way. And relieved are the Park County residents who worried about the haul’s potential impact on safety, traffic, tourism and the highway itself.

Though the project involved a Wyoming roadway, local and state officials were out of the loop until late in the planning process. County commissioners and area legislators didn’t hear of the hauling plan until last summer.

About six weeks ago, in a better-late-than-never meeting with Park County residents and officials, Montana DEQ representatives apologized for not seeking input from Wyoming stakeholders earlier. They also said they would look into an alternative plan.

“If we can find a better way to do that than hauling 315 miles to Montana, we will do that,” said Montana DEQ director Richard Opper at the November meeting.

We are glad they found another plan, which Opper described Wednesday as “not a better way. In fact, it’s not as good a way” — but a workable solution nonetheless.

And while the modified plan certainly appeases Wyomingites who opposed the haul, we hope the deeper pit also successfully accomplishes the top priority — keeping the Soda Butte Creek free of contaminated mine waste.

Over the years, acidic pollutants from the toxic tailings have leached into the Soda Butte, making it the most-contaminated creek flowing into Yellowstone National Park.

Addressing this threatening source of contamination in Yellowstone must be chief among priorities. And if it can be done without also impacting a scenic Wyoming highway, all the better.

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