Chief Joseph Highway hauling

Posted 9/14/10

“We did not do a good job of communicating with them (Park County officials) on this project,” conceded Montana DEQ director Richard Opper in a Friday phone interview. Opper said the DEQ had also failed to communicate with Montana …

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Chief Joseph Highway hauling


After criticism, Montana officials plan meeting The director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality plans to meet with Park County officials next month to discuss a controversial plan to haul tens of thousands of tons of gold tailings across the Chief Joseph Highway next summer.County commissioners, local state legislators, landowners and Cody officials have all voiced concern with the plan's potential impacts on traffic, tourism and the road itself — and frustration with not being notified of the plan until it was all but finalized.

“We did not do a good job of communicating with them (Park County officials) on this project,” conceded Montana DEQ director Richard Opper in a Friday phone interview. Opper said the DEQ had also failed to communicate with Montana residents along the 330-mile haul route.

The Montana agency hired a contractor this spring to ultimately haul some 48,700 tons of mine tailings currently stored at the McLaren gold mine near Cooke City down the Chief Joseph and then up to Whitehall, Mont., for processing. The hauling is one part of a planned $24.4 million clean up of the McLaren mine, which is leaking toxic materials into Soda Butte Creek. The material hauled through Wyoming represents only about 20 percent of the total contaminated material at the mine site. The remainder will be placed in a more secure permanent storage area being constructed next to the site. Opper said hauling some tailings makes the permanent storage area much more secure.

However, the prospect of hauling over the Chief Joseph Highway (State Highway 296) has drawn concern from landowners and local legislators, including state Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, and Reps. Dave Bonner, R-Powell, and Pat Childers, R-Cody.

Childers had urged the Park County Commission to send the Montana DEQ a letter. He said the agency needs to mitigate the impacts to Wyoming.

“They didn't mitigate anything; they just ignored us,” he said at the commission's Aug. 3 meeting.

Richard Ridgway, the president of the Sunlight Landowners Association, has said area landowners are concerned about the impacts on public safety as a result of the slow-moving truck traffic. He also questioned how the project came together so quickly without Wyoming input.

“Why did so few people know so little about this for so long?” Ridgway asked at the commission's Aug. 10 meeting.

The Park County Commission sent a letter to the Montana DEQ, asking the agency for information on how it plans to lessen the impacts from the haul trucks and why Wyoming officials were not involved earlier.

“The National Environmental Policy Act as well as the The Montana Environmental Policy Act, requires coordination with local governments. The Wyoming Department of Transportation and Park County, Wyoming were not invited to participate,” the commission tersely wrote on Aug. 10.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation initially was concerned because state officials hadn't known about the project until after the Montana DEQ had already accepted bids on the project. But in the time since, Opper said, the DEQ has been working closely with Wyoming transportation officials.

Opper said critics were absolutely right in questioning the lack of public involvement, and said he completely understands the concerns about the impacts of the hauling.

“Earlier communication would have solved a lot of problems,” he said Friday.

In an Aug. 20 response to the commission's letter, Opper outlined a number of the mitigation measures the DEQ and the contractor plan to implement to reduce the impacts, including truck weighings, inspections and instructions to truck drivers regarding safety on the highway's steep switchbacks. Driver courtesy will be emphasized, no hauling is scheduled for holidays and weekends and trucks leaving the McLaren site will be spaced a minimum of 30 minutes apart, Opper wrote.

The consensus of the commission at its Sept. 7 meeting was that their preference would be to see all of the tailings stored on site, rather than hauled and processed. At a meeting last month, Commissioner Dave Burke called that “the only real solution.”

In October, Opper and other Montana DEQ officials plan to meet with the commission in Cody and “we will go there with an open mind,” Opper said.

When asked if it would be possible to change the plan to nix the hauling, Opper said he supposed it was a possibility, but he also highlighted the benefits of the plan.

Opper said all of the tailings could fit into the storage area, but said it would make the mound visible from Cooke City. More importantly, he said, the more tailings that are in the storage repository, the more vulnerable it is to collapse in the event of seismic activity, and then “all the material would end up back in the creek.”

Opper also noted that cleaning up Soda Butte Creek will largely benefit Wyoming. He noted that it is the most contaminated creek in Yellowstone Park and primarily located in the Cowboy State.

“It's a good thing for the region,” Opper said.

The DEQ director said he didn't like the idea of hauling the tailings when it was first proposed by staff.

“You want to haul this stuff all that way?” Opper remembers thinking. But after looking at the significant improvements to the dam's safety, he became sold on the idea.

The state of Montana has estimated that the remaining 80 percent of the tailings might contain another $20 million worth of gold, but Opper said he's not looking at that.

“I really am not interested at this point, without a really compelling reason, doing anything beyond one year (in terms of hauling),” Opper said.

Some Wyoming officials, chiefly Rep. Childers, have voiced concern that Montana may be making money on the hauling aspect of the project as Wyoming's roads and interests suffer.

Opper said that's inaccurate.

“We're not making money on this project,” he said.

The hauling will cost approximately $5 million and Opper said gold must be valued at roughly $1,220 an ounce for the state to break even on the hauling. Gold prices were just under $1,245 an ounce on Monday. Opper said if the state sees any profit, the money will be re-invested in the clean-up project.