HELENA, Mont. — The hillside and stream channel covered with waste rock from the Lilly/Orphan Boy Mine may look today like a bomb went off, said Autumn Coleman, Abandoned Mine Lands Program manager for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. But once removed, it will give Trout Unlimited an unpolluted blank slate to restore this mountain stream.
“So Telegraph Creek is in that pipe now,” she said, pointing out the black pipe running above a sludge of contaminated mud where miners dumped waste into the creek. “We speculate they built a dam across the floodplain, then Telegraph backed up and blew it out. The whole flood plain is contaminated with heavy metals from the mine.”
The Little Blackfoot drainage is dotted with more than 200 abandoned hardrock mines and about 100 sources of acid mine drainage, she said. In 2008, DEQ investigated the shuttered silver and lead Lilly/Orphan Boy located 10.5 miles south of Elliston, with the goal of treating or stopping acid-producing discharge and removing heavy metal contamination.
Piles of waste rock including one pile split by Telegraph Creek were identified as pollution sources, along with a collapsed adit turned orange from acid mine drainage.
The efforts to neutralize the acid discharge, including introducing tons of manure into the mine as one remediation technique, were unsuccessful.
In 2012, the AML program stopped funding hardrock projects to focus on abandoned coal mines, Coleman said, essentially shelving the work done up to that point.
In 2015 Trout Unlimited secured state funding to develop a metals reclamation plan for the Little Blackfoot and requested the state’s documents and data. The nonprofit then approached DEQ about reviving the project and has since secured additional grants toward its completion.
DEQ was able to tap funding from its “orphan share” account, funded through taxes on natural resource development such as oil and gas and hardrock mining.
The partnership is the first between a private organization and the AML program, Coleman said.
“We focus on mine reclamation; Trout Unlimited is focused on restoration,” she said.
The project design calls for the ongoing removal of 7,500 cubic yards of waste rock to be trucked a few miles to the Luttrell Repository on the Continental Divide. Trout Unlimited will follow this September to redesign the stream channel and restore it to a more natural state.
“We’ve used this model in the past with, for liability reasons, the state reclaims the site by removing hazardous waste, and we complete the stream restoration,” said Rob Roberts with Trout Unlimited. “Our goal is to restore Telegraph Creek with a proper pattern and profile and re-establish vegetation for wildlife habitat.”
A major concern with the location of waste rock in the flood plain is a “catastrophic release,” essentially when flood waters flush the bulk of contamination downstream and it becomes impossible to recapture, he said.
Restoring the Little Blackfoot drainage should bring a number of benefits to water quality for fish including both native cutthroat and bull trout and other nonnative species.
“I think the Little Blackfoot has the potential to be one of the better fisheries habitats, especially if we can increase the amount of water in the river, in the entire state,” Roberts said.
As Trout Unlimited looks forward in the drainage, an additional six sites have been identified as initial cleanup priorities, he said.
Seeing the site cleaned up is an exciting proposition for landowner Jesse Chaquette and his family, who bought the recreation property in 2005.
“When we found out about the contamination we were a little bit concerned with three kids running around,” he said. “When this project came up we were totally on board. It seems like kind of the responsible thing to do.”
After DEQ shelved the project in 2008, Chaquette believed nothing would ever come of it. But when Roberts approached the family about the restoration work, things started to fall into place quickly.
“(Roberts) has been great to work with, very straightforward about what this is going to look like when it’s over,” Chaquette said, adding praise for DEQ. “I was shocked they’d invest this much into the land, and I wouldn’t have any deed restrictions after. I’d recommend that anyone who is contacted by DEQ or Trout Unlimited to at a minimum hear them out.”
A challenging aspect of the work at Lilly/Orphan Boy has been the preservation of historic mining artifacts. A headframe dominates the site and must be kept to comply with federal regulations.
“The headframe is one of a couple of historic features that need to be preserved, and the issue with it is it also sits on waste and is quite hazardous — it’s about a 70-foot drop to water,” said Alan Dreesback with Portage Environmental, the state’s consultant at the site. “Preserving the artifacts is challenging just from the perspective of wanting to get as much waste away from the site as possible but also wanting to preserve the artifacts.”
An excavator scraped away at the hillside and loaded a line of repository-bound dump trucks. Clean fill material will be brought in to restore a natural slope and vegetation.
The removal and restoration are phase one of the project, with the acid-producing adit phase two, Coleman said.
“We’re doing our best to get the physical sediment load out of the creek and off the hills and we’ll figure this one out later,” she said of the adit.
Closing a leaking adit is an expensive proposition. Filling the mine works with cement can cost in the millions of dollars and pumping and treating the water is cost prohibitive, Coleman said.
The adit at Lilly/Orphan Boy discharges acid seasonally, meaning DEQ and Portage suspect the water comes more from precipitation than the ground. That may allow construction of a capture basin at the source to stop water from entering, Coleman said.
The dump trucks geared down for a climb to the Continental Divide and the former Basin Creek Mine, operated in the early 1990s by Pegasus Gold Corp. The 1,300-acre site is now owned by DEQ, as it reclaims the aftermath of once legal cyanide heap leach gold mining.
At 7,500 feet in elevation, the site is a harsh environment to reclaim, said DEQ construction manager Joel Chavez. Trees planted two decades ago on a reclaimed cyanide heap leach pad are barely head-high and snow from October until July makes for a short work season.
Despite the challenges, the site is seismically, geologically and geographically pragmatic for the Luttrell Repository, Chavez said. The EPA, Forest Service and DEQ are bringing material here, and the repository currently holds more than 500,000 cubic yards of mining waste from the Basin, Little Blackfoot and Ten Mile drainages with room for 500,000 more. At the edge sits the Lilly/Orphan Boy’s waste ready to be pushed into its final holding place.
“You don’t want to build repositories all over the place because you have to monitor them into perpetuity,” Chavez said. “It makes sense to everybody to have one up here that we can all watch together and we know is a safe place.”
Information from: Independent Record, http://www.helenair.com