Hope for the Mike Horse 

Sen. Max Baucus already made his feelings about the Mike Horse dam near Lincoln well known: he wants it gone. In a response to the U.S. Forest Services’ July release of a draft engineering evaluation/cost analysis for dealing with the crumbling dam, Baucus wrote, “the Blackfoot River is too important to Montanans to risk again on half-measures.”

In June 1975, floodwaters breached the tailings impoundment at Mike Horse mine, releasing 200,000 cubic yards of metal-bearing tailings, which flowed at least 10 miles downstream, covering the streambed, poisoning the water and destroying the native westslope cutthroat fishery in the upper river.

On Sept. 18, supporters of full dam removal got a boost from the state. The Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Fish Wildlife & Parks, Department of Justice and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation collectively issued a 32-page official comment calling for full removal of the dam and the tailings that still linger in the Blackfoot’s upper stretches. Such a cleanup is estimated to cost about $30 million.

“This is huge for us,” says Matt Clifford, staff attorney for the Clark Fork Coalition (CFC). “The state’s comments show that it’s not a radical idea to get rid of the whole thing.”

One of the Forest Service’s major concerns with option 5—which calls for complete removal of the dam—involves the difficulty of finding a suitable repository for the estimated 370,000 cubic yards of toxic mine tailings now at the dam site. Forest Service officials indicated in July that they would need about 30 acres to accommodate that much material, adding that no such area had been identified within a 10-mile radius. However, the state DEQ conducted its own feasibility investigation and found at least 60 potential locations that meet their screening criteria.

Clifford is hopeful that the state’s support and technical expertise will go a long way toward swaying the Forest Service toward option 5.

“Their comments add a lot of technical punch to what we’ve been saying,” Clifford says. “I think we’re going to get this dam removed.”

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