Chief Joseph plan revisited

Posted 11/18/10

At a public meeting in Cody Tuesday night, Montana DEQ director Richard Opper said the department's goal is to get the mine site cleaned up.

“If we can find a better way to do that than hauling 315 miles to Montana, we will do that,” …

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Chief Joseph plan revisited


DEQ officials take new look at hauling schedule, permitsOfficials with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said Tuesday they plan to step back and re-evaluate a controversial plan to haul some 68,700 tons of gold mine tailings from outside Cooke City, Mont., down the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway and up to a smelter in Whitehall, Mont.The hauling is just one part of an ambitious, nearly $25 million plan to clean up some 320,000 tons of mine waste at the McLaren Mine a quarter-mile east of Cooke City.

At a public meeting in Cody Tuesday night, Montana DEQ director Richard Opper said the department's goal is to get the mine site cleaned up.

“If we can find a better way to do that than hauling 315 miles to Montana, we will do that,” Opper said.

The point of the clean up is to get some 320,000 tons of tailings, waste rock and mineral-contaminated sediment out of a wet flood plain, where they're currently leaking into and contaminating Soda Butte Creek.

The clean up is intended to stabilize the tailings and get them “high and dry,” said Tom Henderson, the Montana DEQ project manager.

Though the planning on the McLaren mine clean up has been underway since 2002, it was only in recent years it became clear that an on-site repository built to hold the waste was not big enough to safely hold all of the material, DEQ officials said.

That fact, coupled with the high price of gold, led the DEQ to develop a plan to haul the excess tailings to a gold refinery. The hope, officials say, is that the gold will pay for the cost of hauling.

The Montana DEQ had not involved Wyoming officials in the planning process before going out for bids on the project in February.

Park County commissioners and legislators had requested the meeting with the Montana DEQ after learning of the haul plan this summer and voicing concerns with the hauling's impact on traffic, tourism, safety and the highway.

“My whole issue is, I'm asking the Montana DEQ, let's go back and pick up the people you missed in the analysis,” said state Rep. Pat Childers, R-Cody, in opening the meeting.

Opper repeatedly apologized for not having held a meeting in Wyoming sooner.

“I'm sorry it took us so long to get here,” Opper said at the outset of his remarks.

He said folks at Tuesday's meeting could hammer the department for not seeking local input earlier, but “You don't need to.”

“We got the message, and you're right,” Opper said.

It appeared the department has more work to do in communicating: Terry Root, the Wapiti District Ranger of the Shoshone National Forest, said the Shoshone had been left out of the loop.

As one example, Root said that in the draft transportation plan released last week, the contractor has stated plans to stage trucks at the Pilot Creek area.

“At this point in time, there is no permit (from the Shoshone) to do that,” said Root, and he said such a permit would require an environmental evaluation that could take months. Root also expressed concern with noisy truck brakes rousing campers and Shoshone visitors.

“We need you to open those lines of communication with us,” said Root, adding, “I will tell you right now you're pushing the envelope in getting some of this (permitting) done by your start date.”

Although the clean-up effort is scheduled to run through 2015, the hauling, as proposed, would last for only about three months next year — from late June to September, 2011.

WyDOT District Maintenance Engineer Ron Huff said WyDOT would like hauling to begin no earlier than July 1 to ensure the ground has dried out enough to handle heavy trucks.

“Bottom line is, Mother Nature is going to tell us when we can haul on that road,” Huff said.

Opper said if the season is shortened too much, “I don't know if we can get it all in one year.”

WyDOT and the Wyoming Highway Patrol also oppose allowing overweight trucks to haul loads from the site — something outlined in the preliminary plan — to protect human safety and the road.

Huff also recommended truck pullouts to allow cars to pass and for truck brakes to cool; Park County Engineer Dave Kieper submitted comments saying runaway truck ramps should be installed at some points.

Huff said sound practices would protect the roadway.

WyDOT state materials manager Rick Harvey said much of the Chief Joseph was designed to handle up to 30 trucks a day.

“It was designed for some fairly heavy truck traffic,” he said.

Preliminary plans for this haul call for 24 trucks a day, spaced at 30-minute intervals for a total of about 1,700 loaded trips.

Kim Capron of the Friends of the Beartooth All-American Road noted that the first 10 miles of the haul from Cooke City travels the Beartooth Highway. Capron said she wants the plan to include protections for the Beartooth, noting that funding for fixing the orphan highway is hard to find.

The consensus of the Park County elected officials and citizens who commented at the full-house meeting said the Montana DEQ should look harder at finding a suitable repository to hold the tailings that are proposed to be hauled.

Montana DEQ officials said they had no other viable sites on the table.

Nev Harding, an experienced trucker who helped haul some 60,000 tons to the top of Daisy Pass for separate work in 2002 and 2003, said careful hauling could avoid problems.

He said the previous operation — which involved 40 loads a day — resulted in no complaints, no dead animals, no flat tires and only one breakdown, due to overheating.

“My feeling is that it (hauling) can be successfully achieved,” he said.

All of those in attendance voiced support for the overall aim of the DEQ project — to stop toxic mine tailings from continuing to leak into Soda Butte Creek.

Henderson, the Montana DEQ project manager, said an estimated 50 tons of iron leach from the tailings and into the creek each year.

Soda Butte is the most contaminated creek flowing into Yellowstone National Park.

Henderson said today's high gold values make the hauling — estimated to cost some $5 million — feasible. If gold is $1,368 per ounce — roughly where it stands today — the project will pay for itself. If there was to be a profit, 10 percent of the proceeds would go to a private royalty holder. The remaining money, Henderson said, would likely go toward paying the $20 million cost of the clean up unrelated to hauling. Had gold not been so high, some of the material would likely have been left in place, he said.

Henderson said if the route was easier, the DEQ likely would try hauling it all.

“It is a haul of concern,” he said of the Chief Joseph route.