At the headwaters of the Big Blackfoot River, it's difficult to imagine that the waters become, just a little ways downstream, one of the most revered and iconic rivers in the West. The river effectively originates from a 4-inch pipe, above which stands a humming wastewater treatment plant. Above that, hundreds of thousands of yards of toxic mine tailings lie ensconced, tenuously, in an earthen dam.
Today, snow cover conceals the extent of the pollution, but signs of it emerge in exposed ground, reddened by acid mine drainage. Even below the pipe, where the Blackfoot begins in earnest a 132-mile meander to its confluence with the Clark Fork River, the streambed is scarred and discolored. Here, the mystique of the river, so steeped in fly-fishing lore and notions of purity, becomes myth.
Since the early 1940s, the Mike Horse Dam has loomed over the Blackfoot, holding back contaminates from the Mike Horse Mine, part of a mountainous mining district called the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex (UBMC) some 15 miles upstream of Lincoln. In June 1975, at the peak of the spring runoff, the Mike Horse Dam, itself partly constructed of tailings, blew out, washing 100,000 tons of fine-grain tailings—laced with silver, gold, zinc, lead, cadmium, iron, copper and arsenic—into Beartrap Creek and the upper Blackfoot River, devastating fish and other aquatic life for miles. Shortly thereafter, the mine's owner, American Smelting and Refining Company, LLC (ASARCO), shoddily fortified the dam with more earth and tailings. Ever since, despite the Montana Legislature designating the UBMC a state Superfund site in 1991, the potential for the dam to fail again has weighed heavily over the river, and on the minds of those who love it.
This spring—36 years after the blowout—brings the beginning of the end of the Mike Horse Dam. A $39 million settlement with ASARCO and the Atlantic Richfield Co., which assumed a lease of the property in the '60s, is allowing the state and federal government to finally begin the process of removing the dam and the contaminated tailings behind it, and restoring the historic headwaters of the Blackfoot River. That the dam will be removed at all—as opposed to permanently entombed in place, as ASARCO, as it sank into bankruptcy, had argued for—counts as a major victory for the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the two agencies leading the restoration effort.
But that victory created a quandary: If the toxic tailings are going to be removed, where should they be moved to? The agencies and Lincoln-area residents have been grappling with the question for more than three years. In the coming weeks, the DEQ and Forest Service will release their analysis of the various options, none of which appear ideal—an understatement as far as some potentially affected neighbors are concerned. Those neighbors charge that the agencies have already chosen a site for the repository, absent public input and corrupted by backroom dealings.
It's not only residents, though, who find themselves watching the restoration of the upper Blackfoot unfold. The river's reach spreads well beyond its banks, to communities all over the state and, thanks to Norman Maclean, across the country.
"This particular project, and its impact, is very far reaching," says Shellie Haaland, a DEQ reclamation specialist who works solely on the UBMC. "It's Great Falls, it's Helena, it's Missoula. It's three large populations of people who have lived and played here for decades, and it is very, very important to a lot of people."
"And it's A River Runs Through It, so there are national implications," adds Amber Kamps, the Lincoln district ranger. "We're hearing from those folks as well."
Haaland and Beth Ihle, a geologist with the Helena National Forest, drive single-lane highways and snow-packed forest roads between Lincoln and Rogers Pass pointing out potential locations for a tailings repository. As the truck passes marshy creek bottoms and winds around mountainsides, it becomes abundantly clear that there are no obvious places for a 30-acre landfill.
"We're in a mountainous environment, let's face it," Ihle says. "Where do cities put their landfills? They don't put them up on slopes like this," her hand at a sharp angle. "Well, this is the environment we have. That's our dilemma, in the end."
What they're looking for, ideally, is flat ground above about 15 feet of clay or limestone. "That's not going to happen," Haaland says. "It's just not. But what we're looking for up here is benched topography, something that will give us something to work with that's not a 35 percent slope."
Even that's hard to find here in these rolling forestlands, where the tailings will likely have to end up. Siting the repository within the Superfund area is advantageous largely because it precludes the need for a landfill permit. As Haaland says, "The whole point of Superfund is to streamline the process." But more practical reasons are at play, namely cost. Costs increase exponentially the farther the tailings are moved. Haaland estimates that the mining complex currently holds between 600,000 and one million cubic yards of toxic waste (about 420,000 cubic yards are impounded in the dam itself). Assuming a single dump truck can carry about 20 cubic yards, that's 40,000 roundtrips from the Mike Horse Dam to a repository, give or take 10,000.
"That's a lot of trucks," Haaland and Ihle say in near unison. And it's the single greatest cost of the project. They say $39 million sounds like a lot of money, but it hardly is for a project that will take a decade to complete. The closer the repository is to the dam, the further that money can be stretched.
Back in 2007, when the Forest Service released its Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis, they laid out a simple solution: depositing the tailings in an existing repository created years ago by ASARCO. It's adjacent to Paymaster Creek, just off the forest road that connects the mining complex to Highway 200.
"Paymaster was chosen because of its proximity to the waste, where it's at right now," Haaland says. "It's the closest, therefore, with the information that we had at the time, it was the most economically viable, feasible solution."
Not anymore. For starters, estimates of the volume of waste within the impoundment have nearly doubled. "And that changes the game," Haaland says. "What would have been a 20-foot impoundment is more like a 50-foot impoundment, just because of [Paymaster's] landform."
Haaland and Ihle pull up to the Paymaster site. It sits up-mountain in a clearing surrounded by dense pine, with an average slope of about 24 percent. But Haaland and Ihle point not to the repository itself, but what sits downhill on the other side of the road—the still-nascent Blackfoot River. The 50- to 80-foot retaining berm Paymaster would require to accommodate the Mike Horse tailings would be built about 50 feet from the river.
Beyond that, the Paymaster site presents geotechnical problems. Among them, soils here naturally contain high levels of metals, so they can't truck "borrow material" from Paymaster to the headwaters—as would be the plan—to rebuild the floodplain. Plus, the seismic safety factor here barely meets minimum requirements.
"We're living in a fault zone," Haalands says. "What happens when you have a 50- to 80-foot berm and the quake comes? What happens then? You open up a fissure and that stuff gets re-saturated...The thing that will be most protective in the long run is where you want to be."
(It's been over four decades since the last destructive earthquake in Montana, but small quakes are common; on Thursday, March 17, a 1.0-magnitude quake struck about 30 miles north of Lincoln. The Continental Divide here runs along the Intermountain Seismic Belt.)
Paymaster is one among several sites the Forest Service and DEQ have explored since 2007. Haaland and Ihle describe a few others that have been considered, but each has its own drawbacks.
First Gulch, on the north side of Highway 200 about four miles from the road to the Mike Horse Dam, looked promising, but design estimates showed that multiple repositories would be needed, and those locations are all on steep slopes above tributaries to the Blackfoot. And, as Haaland says, "it just doesn't have much for dirt [for rebuilding the headwaters' floodplain]."
"So you're looking at needing yet another place to get borrow material and you're branching out more and more," she says. "Each time you branch out to another site, you have more cost, and you have more environmental impact."
The Horsefly Creek area's topography and soil types made it a candidate for the repository, but its problem is access. Trucks could reach it via dirt road, which adds a few miles, or they could go onto private property and build a bridge over the Blackfoot. Neither option pencils out.
"Horsefly Creek is a hell of a haul, is what it ends up being," Haaland says.
And there are a few other options, too, like Shave Gulch, but they've effectively been nixed.
Like real estate agents showing properties to new homebuyers, Haaland and Ihle save the best for last—a 365-acre piece of ground off Highway 279 known as "Section 35." It popped up on their radar early last year, and it now stands out as the preferred location for laying to rest the Mike Horse tailings. It wasn't initially considered, they explain, because they didn't zoom their GIS mapping system in close enough to reveal the land's benched topography, an appealing feature for landfilling. It also contains low-permeability soils with low metals content. The depth to groundwater ranges from about five to 80 feet. One test well didn't reach groundwater at all.
Haaland and Ihle pull over onto the shoulder and look northeast of the highway, past willows and the foot-wide Nora Creek, completely hidden under snow, to a series of benches dotted with trees. Says Haaland: "It has a lot of potential to be able to encapsulate that material and keep it separated from surface water, ground water; be able to keep it away from those things, not just under normal circumstances, but in catastrophic circumstances.
"There's enough distance and space," she adds, "that even in the absolute worst case scenario—the absolute worst, which is you have a quake, it opens that thing up and then you have a massive rain event—it's still not going to get it to the surface water."
Ihle says the site also offers a good visual buffer for area residents, since the benches rise hundreds of yards from the road.
Not everyone's as enthusiastic, and that partly has to do with the landowner: Stimson Lumber Company. Stimson owes the state $300,000 for cleanup work at its Bonner mill, at the other end of the Blackfoot River, and, conveniently, it's offered to give the state Section 35 to use as a repository in lieu of payment. But the land wouldn't necessarily cost just $300,000. Just down the road is the Sieben Ranch, owned by John Baucus, brother of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. The family holds Section 35's development rights, as well as some of its mineral rights. The DEQ is currently in negotiations with John Baucus to buy out the ranch's claims.
Critics contend that the DEQ arbitrarily favors Section 35, and they express misgivings about the Baucuses standing to profit. But more than that, a handful of neighbors say they've been kept in the dark about the potential for one million yards of toxic tailings to be dumped in their backyards.
Tucked among 140 wooded acres along Highway 279 stands Mike Grimes' home. Inside, the 66-year-old sits at the kitchen table, beneath a mount of a bull elk he shot on the ridge outside his backdoor, and rolls out maps and shuffles through papers as he tries to show that the DEQ and Forest Service have bungled the repository selection process.
Grimes' biggest beef is that the agencies haven't been more forthcoming about their consideration of Section 35, located across the road from his property. And he argues that when they do finally seek public comment next month, their minds will already be made up.
"What good does that do?" he asks about irrelevant public comments. "Are you going to go up there and tell them how to build [the repository]?"
The DEQ and the Forest Service insist they've diligently involved the public. They've given monthly project updates to the Lincoln Community Council, and taken local residents and organizations like the Blackfoot Challenge on field trips to Section 35 to demonstrate its relative appeal.
But, as Grimes points out, the arrangement with Stimson was first made public last April in a document relating to Stimson's cleanup in Bonner, not the upper Blackfoot, serving to fuel critics' claims of surreptitiousness. And then, last September, a DEQ update on the Stimson Cooling Pond PCB Cleanup project plainly stated that "Stimson will also compensate DEQ for past and current costs incurred for this project by transferring certain property Stimson owns near Lincoln, Montana, to DEQ for use as a source of clean soils and as a waste repository for the cleanup of the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex-Mike Horse Mine Site." It's enough for Grimes to think Paymaster and the other less desirable repository locations amount to "a bunch of strawmen."
More than the sting of feeling that he and his neighbors aren't a part of the decision-making process, Grimes is facing the prospect of his peace and quiet being disrupted by an incessant hum of dusty dump trucks—for the next 10 years.
"It's not just property values," he says. "It's dust and pollution...and what about a seismic event? Even if they get a thing that doesn't leak initially, we're talking about perpetuity here. Who can even comprehend that? If you're within the watershed and near tributaries, it's just a crazy decision."
Section 35 does include tributaries. Nora Creek snakes through it, then winds down onto Grimes' property before mingling with Willow Creek and finally the Blackfoot. Haaland and staffers at Trout Unlimited and the Clark Fork Coalition say Grimes has very little to worry about in terms of groundwater contamination, but he maintains that the tailings ought to be trucked out of the watershed altogether.
"It's going to hurt the hell out of me and my family and my neighbors from a lot of different aspects," he says. "But besides that, it's a stupid place to be putting a repository when they're trying to protect the Blackfoot River."
Grimes isn't the only one voicing disapproval. Jack McInnis, who lives at the confluence of Willow Creek and the Blackfoot, says arguments in favor of Section 35 don't hold water. He proceeds to tick off the names of about a dozen other neighbors who agree.
McInnis makes the case for hauling the waste over Rogers Pass to dry ground, where it wouldn't pose a threat to the Blackfoot watershed. The Forest Service and DEQ say doing so, beyond costing an estimated three times more, raises safety risks.
Says McInnis: "They're going to take rigs that are 200-feet-long and 500,000 pounds"—referring to ExxonMobil's oil sands modules slated to travel Highway 200 on their way to Alberta—"over Rogers Pass, and those are adequately safe, but a gravel dump truck going over the pass is a prohibitive risk? Why that's such a specious argument that they, I think, have finally realized that that doesn't carry much credibility."
McInnis doubts it would cost significantly more to take the tailings over the pass, saying, only partly in jest, that since it's all downhill "they'd spend more on brake linings than they would on gas." He's convinced the real reason the agencies aren't considering sites outside the Superfund boundary is that doing so would require more environmental review—which would draw out the process even longer and cost more. (The boundaries of the Superfund site are still being defined, but they certainly wouldn't extend east over the pass; the Mike Horse Dam blew out to the west.)
"At this point in time, after 20 years or more of fighting with that material, what's another year or so in developing an appropriate repository?" McInnis says. "But they won't listen to that."
John Baucus has the "veto power," as McInnis calls it, to force the agencies to look in another direction. And Baucus' influence extends beyond just Section 35; the Sieben Ranch owns mineral and development rights all around the area, allowing Baucus to "keep anything unsavory out of his own backyard." While he acknowledges that Baucus' involvement could help his cause, McInnis says it's "perceptually improper that the Baucus family is involved in this."
"I don't know anybody up there that isn't against it," he says. "But we're fighting with the Forest Service, DEQ, Stimson Lumber and last, but not least, by any means, the Baucus family."
Jim Paris, chairman of the Lincoln Community Council, says he can understand neighbors' concerns, but he doesn't agree with the assertion that the DEQ and Forest Service have worked in secrecy. He feels the agencies gave the community "adequate" notice about Section 35.
"I kind of get the feeling sometimes that we receive so many different notices and things from the Forest Service that sometimes it becomes overload and people don't pay quite as close attention to what they're receiving as they should," he says.
Chris Brick, science director of the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition, is paying close attention. She doesn't subscribe to Grimes' theories of corruption, but she does caution that decision makers don't know enough about Section 35 to decide. She's suspending judgment until the state makes more data available.
"I'd like to see how high groundwater gets there in the spring," Brick says. "Certainly there are some environmental concerns on that site with respect to high groundwater in the lower elevations, and so what I'd want to know before I would say, 'Sure, this is a reasonable site,' is exactly where they would put the repository, and exactly how they would construct it.
"I am not sure I see fatal flaws that immediately disqualify it," she adds, "but I definitely have some concerns."
Grimes has gone so far as to build a website to rally support for his cause—www.helpsavetheblackfoot.net. It aims to shed light on the "potentially devastating plans to create a mining waste dump in the watershed of the Blackfoot River" and attempts to "keep this information quiet." Grimes also penned a letter to Attorney General Steve Bullock, dated March 11, calling the repository selection process "underhanded and unethical." He said unless Bullock can assure him that Section 35 is off the table, "my neighbors and I will have no alternative but to fight this terrible decision in the public arena and, unfortunately, in court."
Grimes agrees with McInnis that the waste should be taken over Rogers Pass. But if it has to stay in the watershed, where would he put it?
"If I was forced to choose—and this is like choosing one of your children to shoot—if I was forced to make a decision on these sites, that's the only one that's dry," he says, placing his finger on Section 36 of the map. "It's a whole mile away from the Blackfoot."
Section 36 is east of Section 35, toward the Sieben Ranch, and it happens to be home to a popular sledding hill. As Haaland would later say when driving by the hill, "This would have been a really bad idea. You only thought people were mad," suggesting the outcry over Section 36 would be even louder.
Grimes and McInnis suspect that the reason for precluding Section 36 from consideration has more to do with its proximity to the Sieben Ranch than the sledding hill.
As for John Baucus, he says he's still negotiating with the state and has been for several months. The talks are focused on process more than money, he says. He declines to estimate what he believes the property's mineral and development rights are worth, and notes that putting a price tag on it is part of the complication.
"We obviously intend to be up in this area for a long time," Baucus says. "We don't want to put ourselves at risk, but there's risk in anything you do, so where's the line at? That's what we're trying to figure out."
Amber Kamps, the Lincoln district ranger, takes issue with the suggestion that the Stimson arrangement has in any way influenced the agencies' apparent preference for Section 35.
"Despite what you may hear from other people outside of our two agencies, it wasn't a driver," she says. "It still isn't a driver...The focus is completely on, Where is the best site? And how well is that site going to be able to handle waste for the long term? We're talking infinity here."
Even if it is a driver, Section 35 appears to be the best site currently under consideration. No one says it's not, except those for whom Section 35 sits within eyeshot (or earshot of a parade of dump trucks). Unfortunately for the agencies, the perception of disingenuousness can be as damaging as the real thing.
The next step is for the Forest Service and DEQ to release the technical analysis outlining all of the options. It's expected by late April, and a comment period will follow.
"Everyone recognizes that where this repository goes is a huge decision, and it's something that's going to impact all of us who like and care about and want to play in the Blackfoot," says Ihle. "So we have to make sure that we do a good job of displaying all the information we've collected thus far—the pros and cons of each one of these repositories—and do that well so the public can really be part of that process, and we're trying to follow through with that."
Regional Forester Leslie Weldon and DEQ Director Richard Opper will make the final decision. The removal of the Mike Horse Dam will begin following a year or two of design and prep work at both the dam and repository site. After more than three decades since the dam blew out, after seven decades since the Mike Horse Dam was built, and after more than a century since the Mike Horse Mine was first established, it's been a long time coming.
Count Bruce Farling, director of Montana Trout Unlimited, among those who have grown impatient.
"That mess up there has kept the fishery of the upper Blackfoot suppressed for a long time," he says. "You can sample fish in the Blackfoot that still have high levels of cadmium in them, and this is cadmium that was mobilized when that dam blew out in '75 and got into bed sediments and is constantly rolling downstream...The dam itself is a Milltown type of situation. That thing has the potential to come out again in a catastrophic kind of release."
Milltown, of course, is the federal Superfund site at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. It was officially removed in 2008, and restoration efforts are ongoing. Some say that if the Mike Horse Dam blew again, the years of work and millions of dollars spent on the Milltown Dam removal would be for naught.
Farling says removing the Mike Horse Dam will be the easy part; it's just excavation. The hard part will be limiting and treating seepage from the mine's underground works, finding and removing other discrete waste piles, and treating the contaminated wetlands downstream. And then there's the long-term restoration and monitoring. "There's stuff that we flat out aren't going to be able to take care of permanently, that we're going to have to deal with in perpetuity," he says. Which is why the wastewater treatment, and the pipe running from it that essentially serves as the Blackfoot's headwaters, will remain long after the dam is gone.
"That stuff has to be collected and treated forever," he says. "It's a genie out of the bottle situation not unlike Butte, where we have all those underground workings. Of course, all that stuff ends up in the [Berkeley Pit]. We don't have a pit up at the Mike Horse. What we got is drainages and it's ending up in the creek."
Farling, like Brick, says he's concerned about groundwater issues at Section 35, and he encouraged the DEQ to explore other options, including McDonald Meadows and hauling the material over Rogers Pass. But he acknowledges that science—and "agency prejudices"—both point to Section 35. He says he's told Grimes and McInnis that if it's ultimately selected he'd push the state to "mitigate the hell out of that for those guys."
Once the dam is trucked away, the restoration will begin. It's years off, but the state last month began soliciting public comment on a draft conceptual restoration plan for the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex. It proposes general approaches to integrating restoration and remediation activities. Grimes, incidentally, says seeking comment on the restoration before seeking comment on the repository puts the cart before the horse, and he cites it as another example of the agencies' deceitfulness. But the document itself makes clear that the purpose of defining the restoration vision is so the dam's removal can support the best long-term outcome. The Montana Department of Justice's Natural Resource Damage Program will accept comments through April 15.
In the end, the dilemma centers on the struggle between the urgency to remove the dam as soon as possible, mounted up over decades, and the patience required to find the safest possible site. Every spring Farling gets nervous about the potential for a replay of 1975. And with the current snowpack deeper than it's been in years, this spring will probably keep him on edge more than most.
Those leading the upper Blackfoot's restoration stress the need to do it right the first time. The trick is striking the appropriate balance between prudence and promptness—and staying within budget.
"You don't want to do it twice, I tell you what," Ihle says. "This is our one shot in history. You have to think about that. If you just want to make it go away, you make decisions that work for now, and you basically say, 'We're not going to worry about the long term operations and maintenance and the risk. We just want to get it done.' We cannot work that way. When's the next time we're going to get [$39 million]? When is the next time we're going to see this kind of money? We don't have the money to do this twice."