Yesterday, Linda Bordeleau, of Lincoln, picked up the phone and was told that the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Environmental Quality had just decided where in the Blackfoot River watershed to bury up to a million cubic yards of toxic mine tailings that have loomed above the river’s headwaters for decades, in the earthen Mike Horse Dam. The tailings will be trucked—tens of thousands of truckloads—to a piece of ground known as "Section 35," passing the Bordeleaus’ home. Linda muttered some not-so-nice things about the agencies and then passed the phone to her husband, Denis. “Oh god,” he said. “I’m unhappy—very unhappy. I don’t need the noise and dust.”
After years of technical analysis, the agencies announced on July 9 the selection of Section 35 over a handful of other possible tailings repository sites in the Lincoln area, a significant step in the restoration of the Blackfoot’s headwaters. The Mike Horse Dam, built in the 1940s, holds tailings laced with silver, gold, zinc, lead, cadmium, iron, copper and arsenic. In June 1975, the dam blew out, washing 100,000 tons of tailings into Beartrap Creek and the upper Blackfoot River. In 2008, the state reached a $39 million settlement with mining companies ASARCO and the Atlantic Richfield Co. to fund the dam’s removal.
But determining where to move the toxic tailings has been difficult and contentious. The area’s hilly, marshy terrain isn’t conducive to a repository. And neighbors such as the Bordeleaus have been vocal (PDF) in their opposition to Section 35. Many would prefer the tailings be entombed right where they are.
The 355-acre Section 35 sits off Highway 279. It’s owned by Stimson Lumber Co., which owes the state $300,000 for cleanup work at its Bonner mill and offered the land in lieu of payment. John Baucus, brother of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, owns the mineral rights under Section 35 and will be paid $255,000 by the state should the repository ultimately be constructed.
The agencies believe Section 35 is the best site, despite concerns about depth to groundwater, partly because of its benched topography. Shellie Haaland of the DEQ says design-level work will begin in the coming months. Barring any issues “we were not aware of or hadn’t predicted,” repository construction is slated to begin in 2013 and the hauling of the tailings in 2014.
Chris Brick, the Clark Fork Coalition’s science director, says she’s comfortable with the decision. “We need to keep moving forward. Where the tailings are now is not a safe place.”