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Chief Joseph haul plan abandoned

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has abandoned a controversial plan to haul mine waste over the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway as part of a Cooke City mine cleanup project, drawing praise from Park County officials and residents who had voiced concerns with the haul’s impacts.

The Montana DEQ’s roughly $24 million clean up of the old McLaren gold mine outside Cooke City involves removing some 320,000 tons of contaminated mine waste. The materials are leaching into Soda Butte Creek — making it the most contaminated creek flowing into Yellowstone National Park.

The bulk of the tailings, roughly 80 percent, had been slated to stay in an on-site repository, but the remaining 20 percent — around 68,700 tons — were to be hauled down Wyo. 296, the winding Chief Joseph Highway, and up to a smelter near Whitehall, Mont. There, the tailings would be processed for their gold; with the mineral’s current high price, the hope was that the recovered gold would pay for the cost of hauling and processing.

By hauling some of the materials away instead of putting them all in the repository, the holding area would be more secure, Montana DEQ officials said.

However, the plan was crafted without gathering input from Wyoming officials, and when local citizens and officials became aware of the plan this spring, they voiced concerns over the haul’s impacts on traffic and safety.

During a November meeting in Cody, Montana DEQ officials promised to re-examine their plan and apologized for not coming sooner.

On Tuesday, the agency announced it was abandoning the hauling aspect of the plan and would instead deepen the size of the repository to store all of the materials on-site. In a news release, DEQ Director Richard Opper called the new plan “a workable solution.”

“It’s not a better way. In fact, it’s not as good a way,” Opper said in a Wednesday phone interview.

By digging a deeper pit, “we are sacrificing distance to groundwater,” he said.

The cell’s base will be about 12 feet above groundwater; under the previous plan, the base would have been roughly 30 feet above groundwater. Piling the tailings higher in the pit would have compromised the pit’s seismic stability, Opper said.

He described the pit’s safety as having gone “from bulletproof to safe” with its deepening.

“That (12-foot gap) is still within the limits,” he said. “We’re OK with that. We think we can live with that.”

The new plan was endorsed by Park County officials and residents.

Park County Commissioner Dave Burke said he thought the DEQ’s decision to abandon the haul plan was “great.”

“I believe it’s a win-win for everyone involved,” Burke said.

“It (the Chief Joseph hauling) would have been difficult on the tourists traveling out of there, and it would have been difficult on the residents of Sunlight Basin,” said state Rep. Pat Childers, R-Cody, in a Wednesday interview.

Childers led the effort to get more information and an open ear from the Montana DEQ after learning of the hauling plan.

“I didn’t go at it attempting to stop it. I went at it attempting to get them to hear us,” said Childers, though he said he was pleased the Montana DEQ did “the right thing.”

His thoughts were echoed by Sunlight Landowners Association Vice President Bret Allard.

“That’s the way it should be,” said Allard when informed of the Montana DEQ’s plans to store all the materials on site.

Allard said his primary concern with the project had been public safety. He envisioned frustrated summer motorists attempting to pass the slow-moving haul trucks and getting into accidents.

“I just did not want to have anybody die over something that could have been resolved like (how) they now say they’ll resolve it,” Allard said.

Allard said he was proud of the people of Cody and the Sunlight area for their work to hold the Montana DEQ responsible.

In the Tuesday release, Opper said new requirements from the Wyoming Department of Transportation and Shoshone National Forest officials made the haul plan “less appealing and more costly” by adding unexpected new restrictions.

One major concern raised by WYDOT at the November meeting was that the DEQ wanted to haul overweight trucks across the Chief Joseph Highway.

In the interview, Opper said the Department of Transportation had a “change of heart” after initially voicing support for the haul project and was changing its requirements.

However, “This is all a moot issue because the hauling is not going to happen,” he said. “They’re happy and we’re OK with it.”

WyDOT regional spokesman Cody Beers said the transportation department never changed its position on the hauling project and did not oppose it.

“We would have worked with Montana DEQ and the contractor to hopefully make this haul a success,” Beers said.

He said the department was clear from the beginning that only legal loads — up to 117,000 pounds — would be allowed on the Chief Joseph. The Montana DEQ had sought permission for hauling overweight loads, up to 131,000 pounds.

“We’ve been consistent since day one that we wanted them to haul legal loads across that highway,” said Beers.

Beers said the Transportation Department put a lot of study into the road and that WYDOT’s recommendations were based on science.

He noted it’s the department’s job to “maintain the integrity of that roadway.”

“Our goal is to do the right thing,” said Beers. “And we felt hauling maximum legal loads was the right thing to do on this project.”

He added that “the lack of a haul will definitely lengthen the life of that highway.”

Opper said the Shoshone National Forest also raised “last-minute” concerns that presented difficulties. At the November meeting, the Shoshone’s Wapiti District Ranger, Terry Root, told Montana DEQ officials that they would need to get a permit to stage trucks at the Pilot Creek area, as called for in the draft transportation plan; he also questioned if the Montana DEQ had followed federal processes for evaluating impacts on grizzly bears.

While Opper said that it was the DEQ’s fault for not informing Cody-area residents of the plan sooner, he said it was the Shoshone’s own fault for not being aware of and commenting on the haul plans earlier. He said Shoshone officials did not attend public meetings on the project and should have communicated with the Gallatin National Forest in Montana, who’d been working with the DEQ.

“They (the Shoshone) weighed in late on it. That was their fault,” Opper said.

However, Root on Wednesday said it was only a few days before the November meeting that he learned the department was planning to stage trucks at Pilot Creek.

“We would have been more than happy to weigh in earlier if we had been informed of what their plans were,” said Root.

He said the DEQ inquired about possibly using the location for staging, but never completed the paperwork sent by the Shoshone.

“The ball was in their court and they never gave it back to us,” he said.

Root said he would have been happy to work the Montana DEQ.

Opper said the department likely could have worked through the issues with WyDOT and the Shoshone, but said he was happy there was another acceptable alternative.

“As long as we got the project cleaned up and we get the contaminated material out of the flood plain and we addressed ... the biggest source of contamination in Yellowstone National Park, I don’t think any of us cared too deeply on how this is done,” Opper said.

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