Work began at the McLaren Mine site June 1, according to John Koerth of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The project will eventually entail hauling 48,700 or more tons of mine tailings stored behind a dam at the mine site to …
Montana mine cleanup means truck traffic in WyomingCleanup of an old gold mine near Cooke City, Mont., will mean increased truck traffic over the Chief Joseph Highway next summer and has raised concerns about safety and damage to the scenic highway.However, Shelby Carlson, district engineer for the Wyoming Department of Transportation in Basin, said the contractor carrying out the project, Knife River Corporation-Mountain Region of Billings, has been cooperative and willing to work with WYDOT to limit the impact on the highway.
Work began at the McLaren Mine site June 1, according to John Koerth of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The project will eventually entail hauling 48,700 or more tons of mine tailings stored behind a dam at the mine site to Whitehall, Mont., where they will be processed at the Golden Sunlight Mine to recover any remaining gold. The tailings will then be stored in a permitted storage facility at Whitehall.
The tailings cannot be hauled over the Beartooth Highway to Red Lodge or through Yellowstone National Park, leaving the Chief Joseph Highway as the only route available.
Carlson said WYDOT was concerned because Wyoming officials hadn't known about the project until after bids had already been accepted by Montana DEQ. However, she said, WYDOT was able to review the condition of the highway prior to the awarding of the contract.
“We did that to make sure the road was capable of taking the traffic, and they (Montana DEQ) waited until we finished the review,” Carlson said.
Carlson said the road was designed to handle truck traffic, and the department's major concern was that the hauling be delayed until the soil dries out in the spring. She also said that the trucks would have to adhere to WYDOT weight limits, and that those limits could be adjusted if necessary.
Knife River has been cooperative, according to Carlson, and will work with WYDOT on scheduling the hauling based on conditions. She added that a Knife River engineer had worked on the construction of Chief Joseph Highway and is familiar with the road.
Dave Burke, vice chairman of the Park County Commission, said the commissioners had some concerns about safety because of the presence of the trucks on the highway. However, he said the Wyoming Highway Patrol has indicated that they will be watching the highway carefully to insure safety.
“I have a lot of faith in our state transportation department and the highway patrol to keep on top of it,” Burke said.
This summer will be devoted to site preparation, so hauling will not begin until 2011. This summer's work involves building infrastructure needed to do the reclamation work, including a water treatment plant. Water has to be removed from behind the dam and decontaminated before the tailings can be moved, he said.
Koerth said the project, which will take six years to complete, has been in the works for 10 years and he isn't sure why Wyoming officials weren't aware of it until recently. He said public hearings on the project were not advertised in Wyoming because the project is located in Montana, but that DEQ has worked with the National Park Service and conducted additional testing at its request.
Montana DEQ is undertaking the project because the mine waste is contaminating Soda Butte Creek, which flows into Yellowstone Park, and there is concern that seismic activity or high water could cause the dam to fail, which would spread contaminated material down the creek into the park.
“We're trying to do some good here,” Koerth said. “We're trying to do the right thing.”
The material hauled through Wyoming is only a fraction 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 mine site.
Burke said he had asked if the purpose of the project was to clean up the site or to produce gold, and was told that it was a cleanup project. Reprocessing the tailings, however, may produce $25-30 million worth of gold, which would be enough to offset the cost of the project, according to estimates from Knife River.