Cody, Wyoming—Beginning next summer the state of Montana plans to haul thousands of tons of contaminated mine tailings from an abandoned Cooke City, Montana, gold mine over Wyoming’s Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, a fragile, 47-mile, two-lane mountain route to Yellowstone and one of the state’s most popular tourist byways.
The project to remove 68,000-148,000 tons of toxic material overland from the McLaren mill tailings site on the outskirts of Cooke City, Montana, 318 miles to a smelter in Whitehall, Montana, near Butte also includes reprocessing the tailings to harvest residual gold. Montana officials claim that even at currently high gold prices of over $1,100 an ounce, the revenue from the recovered gold will barely cover the hauling costs.
But the hauling scheme has some high-level political allure in The Treasure State. The project was celebrated in a June 2 Montana agency press release as “good as gold” and an “example of [Montana] Gov. [Brian] Schweitzer’s restoration economy and a demonstration of Montana ingenuity at its best.”
Here in northwest Wyoming the McLaren mill clean-up proposal is not so glittery, evocative of previous borderland mine and mine cleanup skirmishes reflected in the once-popular bumper sticker:
“Montana Gets the Gold, Wyoming Gets the Shaft.”
Central to the issue here is geography. You cannot get to or from Cooke City Montana except by driving through Wyoming. It is one of the most geographically isolated towns in Montana.
Another component is transparency. The ambitious hauling plan was put together quietly by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality starting in early 2008 when the price of gold started a steep climb to historically high global prices.
But the cleanup of the old McLaren mine tailings received almost no attention in Wyoming until this summer when State Representative Pat Childers (R-Cody) raised concerns that the potential damage to the road and to the region’s tourist economy had not been sufficiently studied and that Wyoming officials were left out of the loop.
“Montana did not include Wyoming in the environmental analysis of what they were going to do with those tailings,” Childers said in an interview with WyoFile. “They may have included some of the Montana people, but Wyoming was left out of the picture and it shouldn’t have been.”
Wyoming Department of Transportation officials said they first heard about the heavy hauling in late March of this year, weeks after the bids had been opened.
Few people, if any, question the need for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s overall mission to clean up the McLaren mill pits and restore Soda Butte Creek in Cooke City.
Soda Butte Creek is terribly polluted by the McLaren’s 30 acres of mine excrement straddling it, in some places 50 feet deep behind a shaky dam; a repository of acid mine waste. Mixed with oxygen from the atmosphere and hydrogen in running water, the McLaren tailings have generated high concentrations of sulfuric acid, turning the streambed a bright orange, killing everything zootic in the aquatic food chain for miles downstream. This stream percolates only a few yards behind businesses on the east side of Cooke City’s main street .
Awareness of Soda Butte Creek’s poisonous plight goes back 60 years.
In 1949, a Yellowstone Park ranger determined that the McLaren tailings were heavily toxic and damaging to Soda Butte Creek and Yellowstone itself.
Soda Butte Creek is one of the largest tributaries of the long Lamar River which in turn feeds the Yellowstone River. The ranger found that all biologic life in Soda Butte Creek , from microrganisms and invertebrates all the way up to trout , were dying or gone for miles below the McLaren.
At that time, the McLaren Mill was still operating, but mysteriously burned to the ground in 1953 and its owners walked away from it.
The tailings are four miles upstream from Yellowstone Park’s northeast entrance and five miles from Wyoming. When Soda Butte Creek eventually does cross the state line into Wyoming it is wholly within the jurisdictional confines of Yellowstone National Park.
THE CHIEF JOE
After a 31-year effort, The Chief Joseph Highway , officially known as Wyoming State Highway 296, was finally upgraded from a county gravel road to a fully paved state highway in 1995.
But the earliest stretches of it are rapidly approaching their 50-year design life. The forces of nature brutalize the Chief Joe with relentless freeze and thaw cycles. It can snow any day of the year in Wyoming’s Chief Joseph highway country .
The highway climbs 3,000 vertical feet from its junction on the Cody side to 8,050 foot Dead Indian Pass, and drops 2,000 feet on the Cooke City side with an unbroken 7.2 mile double yellow stripe “No Passing Zone” down 7 percent grades with hairpin turns.
There are already rough spots where the pavement is cracking or the subgrade undulating. State Highway 296 was not designed or constructed to the more robust standards of a primary artery.
The Chief Joe is narrower and of less substance than the highways with which it connects: US 212, Beartooth Scenic Highway, between Cooke City and Red Lodge Montana, but which is mostly in Wyoming , and Wyoming Hwy 120-North , the main thoroughfare between Cody and Billings, Montana, which is heavily travelled by trucks.
Under Childers urging, the Park County Board of County Commissioners sent an August 10 letter to Montana Environmental Quality Director Richard Opper asking what Montana offered Wyoming as compensation for “potential road damage as well as mitigation of impacts to residents, disruption to tourism traffic, and safety considerations.”
Childers, a retired chemical engineer who is chairman of the Wyoming House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, said he also asked Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and the Cody city government to pressure Montana for more information about the project.
Interviewed by WyoFile on August 20, Opper said his staff is studying the Park County request. Opper said that based on earlier objections from Childers and Wyoming Department of Transportation engineers, he has already delayed the beginning of the haul by more than a month, from June to July 2011, to avoid late spring wet and spongy road surfaces.
Montana is using year-to-year grants from its portion of federal Abandoned Mine Lands funds administered by the Office of Surface Mining, Western Region office in Denver, to pay for the 6-year McLaren cleanup.
The contracted price for the base McLaren mill site cleanup ( all tailings left onsite) is $ 20.5 million . But hauling the McLaren tailings back through Wyoming to Whitehall adds millions of dollars more to the project and is not included in the federal Abandoned Mine Lands funding. The haul to Whitehall must pay for itself to proceed at all, and is driven by the price of gold, as volatile and unpredictable that can be.
To lessen the tourist logjams caused by the slow-moving ten-axle, tandem belly-dump haul trucks as they negotiate the steep grades of the Chief Joseph, Opper also said he had agreed not to haul on some key summer holidays.
Wyoming Department of Transportation traffic counters showed 185,000 motor vehicles traversed the Chief Joseph Highway in 2008, the bulk of that occurring in the brief months of summer tourist season, since fewer than 200 year round Wyoming residents live along the route.
But Opper so far has refused to reconsider the project or open it up to further public discussion. “This is a federal highway and this is a legal haul,” Opper said. “We have the obligation, of course, to make sure we work closely with the Wyoming Department of Transportation.”
Even those closely associated with the project cannot say for sure how many trucks will be making the 318 mile trip to Whitehall from Cooke City, but numbers range from at least 1,500 outbound trucks to as many as 4,000 and each of those trucks will return to Cooke City after dumping their loads at the Golden Sunlight Mine processing facility.
Roger Koontz is a lifelong Cody resident who operates Harris Trucking, a heavy construction and trucking firm and who is quite familiar with the Chief Joseph Highway. “That’s a job I would love to have,” Koontz told Wyofile, “ but those trucks will tear up that road.”
Koontz also noted that a passenger car can drive from Cody to Cooke City in less than two hours easily, but one of his heavy haul trucks would take about 4-1/2 hours to do it, giving some indication of the effect the McLaren haul trucks will have on traffic flows. Estimates are calling for trucks dispatching every half hour and up to 25 per day outbound over the Chief Joseph during next summer’s hauls, and an equal number returning.
If Wyoming Department of Transportation managers believe the Mclaren trucks are exacerbating wear and tear on the roadbed, they can legally force those trucks to lighten their loads. But this will likely increase the number and frequency of truckloads. Because it is a public roadway, subject to interstate commerce rules, this the only regulatory or statutory tool Wyoming has to buffer the impacts of the McLaren haul , unless and until very serious roadbed damage occurs.
The legal load limit on Wyoming state highways , including the Chief Joseph Highway , is 91,500 lbs. said Cody Beers, spokesman for Wyoming Department of Transportation.
Wyoming transportation engineers plan to do a technical assessment of the entire Chief Joseph road condition next Spring just before the hauling begins, mapping every linear foot of the 47 mile route with hi-tech sensors, said District Engineer Shelby Carlson from her Basin WY office on August 20.
The contract for the McLaren cleanup and hauling was awarded to multistate contracting and engineering firm Knife River, headquartered out of Bismarck North Dakota with major operations in Billings and Casper.
Knife River actually built portions of the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway during the 1980’s and also knows the highway well. Knife River began work on the McLaren project the second week of June and has been hauling truckloads of equipment and materials into Cooke City over the Chief Joseph Highway this summer .
Heavy earthwork is proceeding briskly at the McLaren with a planned shutdown for the season about October 15. Knife River has prepared a mandatory comprehensive transportation plan that is presently circulating internally at Montana Department of Environmental Quality for review.
Interviewed at the cleanup site on a recent afternoon, project manager Tom Henderson, a professional hydrologist, said there are no viable alternatives to the long overland haul.
Highways back through Yellowstone Park or away east over the 10,940 foot alpine Beartooth Highway are not practical even if they were allowed. No commercial trucking, for example, is allowed in Yellowstone. The Beartooth Highway is even higher and more serpentine than the Chief Joseph.
Henderson said original plans to move all of the tailings to a repository only a few hundred yards from the current location above Soda Butte Creek are negated by seismic and groundwater concerns. Likewise, he said proposals to move the tailings to repositories in the Gallatin National Forest are also environmentally unsound.
Under the revised final plan sent out for bids in October 2009, most of the tailings will be excavated, cleaned and neutralized for Ph factor using lime, dried, and replaced in the original repository behind a new reinforced retaining wall under an impervious cap then “revegetated ,” all resulting in Soda Butte Creek being made healthy again.
The remaining tailings , estimated at between 13 to 30 percent of the total, will be trucked away over the Chief Joseph for reprocessing and final repose.
Years earlier the state agency had asked the Gallatin National Forest for use or purchase of a specific site— a little-used riprap and gravel pit nearby— for a possible repository for the McLaren tailings.
That request was turned down. But Gallatin National Forest officials offered a different repository , one being built for the ongoing and adjacent New World Mine cleanup that is presently only half full.
Montana Department of Environmental Quality was not interested in that option.
“That repository is still available to Montana” , says Mary Beth Marks , the geologist for the Gallatin Forest who oversees the 10-year New World Mine cleanup, now entering its final closeout phase.
LESSONS OF HISTORY
In the 140 year history of mining in the Cooke City region , virtually every venture was unprofitable. It was not because of a lack of gold or silver bullion , it was because the exceedingly high cost of shipping stuff in or out of the New World mining district spirited away all the capital , too. In other words, transportation costs have always exceeded the value of the precious metals extracted near Cooke City.
Nonetheless, Montana is clinging to the gold hauling plan. A sizable amount of the mine waste targeted for hauling is “mine dump “ ore that never went through the McLaren mill at all, so is inherently richer in gold percentage than the milled tailings.
The three contractor bids were opened in February in Helena, and Knife River was awarded the 6-year job on May 10 this year after review. “The contracts have been signed, this is our last good chance,” Henderson said.
Phone records reveal the first contact between Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Wyoming Department of Transportation regarding use of the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway came on March 28 , according to both Del McOmie, Chief Operating Engineer in Cheyenne and Shelby Carlson , District Engineer for northwest Wyoming.
For his part, Rep. Childers is not ruling out the Chief Joseph haul as a possible solution to the McLaren mine clean-up. Childers said he just wants Wyoming to have more of a say in what is happening on one of its most famous byways.
“If Richard Opper brushes off the Commissioners and the State,” Childers said, “I will request that the Commissioners consider filing suit against the state of Montana.”
Childers and other Wyoming officials question whether the Montana plan to remove and haul the tailings is the best approach and wonder if the potential for profit from the recovered gold may be overly influencing the Montana hauling decision at Wyoming’s expense.
“If they are making money on this,” said Childers, “some of those funds should be used to pay the Wyoming Department of Transportation for damage to the highway.”
As it evolves, the case highlights the limitations of interstate cooperation, even on environmentally sound issues, and promises to stoke already smoldering Montana-Wyoming enmity over issues like coal bed methane water pollution that flows from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin into Montana.
Officially, Montana officials are talking about cooperation between the two states. But not far under the surface they are angered that a Wyoming intervention or lawsuit could scuttle their gilded project.
“This is a project that will benefit Yellowstone National Park,” said one official, who asked not to be identified by name. “Last time I looked most of Yellowstone is in Wyoming. Also, I didn’t see Wyoming consulting Montana when they polluted our waters with salt to produce coal bed methane.”