CODY — Montana officials have pledged to “take a step back” and re-evaluate a plan to haul tens of thousands of tons of contaminated mine tailings next summer from Cooke City, Mont., over the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, one of Park County’s steepest and most serpentine highways.
At a recent public meeting, Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, apologized to dozens of Wyoming residents who raised concerns about expected heavy truck traffic, and who said they had felt shut out during earlier project planning.
Opper said he understood why Park County residents might “feel like this project got sprung on you, and I would feel exactly the same way if I was in your position.”
The $24 million cleanup project connects several disparate policy issues, including government transparency, public involvement, environmental laws and highway regulations. It has developed amid a history of sometimes fractious interstate relations and a legacy of failed mining operations in the region.
The haul plan got off to a rocky start locally after a Wyoming Department of Transportation engineer learned this spring that trucking companies were bidding on a contract to haul nearly 69,000 tons of mine waste over the 47-mile Chief Joseph Highway to Whitehall, Mont., a 640-mile round trip.
Traces of gold left in the mill tailings — a fraction of an ounce for every ton of waste — will be extracted at a Whitehall facility and used to help offset the cost of their removal from the site, as well as the rest of the cleanup. But most of the tailings will be moved to a repository a few miles from the current mill site.
For decades, acidic pollutants from the tailings have been leaching into Soda Butte Creek, which flows into Yellowstone National Park and the Lamar River.
Opper denied claims that Montana would profit from the extracted gold. He said the plan to spend the first summer of the six-year project hauling away about 20 percent of the tailings arose only after engineers realized late in the process that the new repository was too small to safely hold all the waste.
Opper said the hauling plan only became viable in early 2010, as the price of gold rose, although he has given conflicting figures for the “break-even” price at which gold sales make hauling tailings economically possible.
Planners had initially considered spending two or three summers hauling additional tailings away, since processing revenues would cover trucking costs, Opper said.
But subsequent objections from Wyoming residents made that option less attractive, he said.
Elected officials and residents attending the meeting offered Opper specific advice on everything from avoiding vehicle collisions with federally protected grizzly bears to what kind of heavy equipment is best for towing disabled trucks and trailers.
“This was one of the most productive public meetings I’ve been to in a long time,” Opper said after the gathering.
Rep. Pat Childers (R-Cody) said he was satisfied with the belated chance for local input, and was optimistic that Montana DEQ would revisit its haul plan based on comments from residents and state and local officials.
“There’s a whole lot of things they had missed, and they’re receptive to those things,” said Childers, who was among the first to voice objections about the haul plan.
Among the issues Montana’s plan does not address are handling any spilled diesel fuel resulting from thousands of truck trips through the area, concern from WYDOT about maximum load weights and environmental permitting required for staging dozens of heavy trucks near a Shoshone National Forest campground.
Though the U.S. Forest Service supports cleaning up the contaminated mine waste, Montana DEQ’s plan “is going to have impacts on us that have not been addressed,” said Terry Root, Wapiti district ranger for the Shoshone National Forest.
The plan calls for hauling up to 35 double-trailer loads every weekday June 1 – Sept. 15, which concerns WYDOT officials because the road is particularly vulnerable to damage until it dries after spring thaws.
“Mother nature is going to tell us when we can haul on that road,” said Ron Huff, a district maintenance engineer for WYDOT. “If we have a late spring, it may not be until July 1, or it may be July 15.”
Huff also objected to a special permit contractors plan to use that would allow for overweight loads to be hauled during a temporary, one-year window.
“We would not support that at all. We feel that if we allow overweight loads, that road will suffer tremendously,” he said.
“I’m adamantly opposed to that (permit) for safety reasons as well,” said Wyoming Highway Patrol Capt. Ed Peterson.
Peterson said he planned to focus on motorist safety along the route.
Federal law prohibits commercial trucking through Yellowstone, and the cleanup project does not meet criteria for a superintendent-issued exemption, said park spokesman Al Nash.
The only other route, over the 10,974-foot Beartooth Pass and along the Beartooth Highway, has even more switchbacks and steep grades.
One portion of the Chief Joseph route climbs nearly 2,000 feet in two miles along a series of tight switchbacks to the top of Dead Indian Pass, at 8,051 feet above sea level.
“These trucks are going to be going along slowly, about 22 mph, and Mom and Pop are coming up with their motor homes,” Peterson said. “They’re going to discover two things at 8,000 feet: they have no power and they can’t pass.”
The trucks and two trailers that make up each rig will stretch 97 feet from front to rear axle, and may leave the mill site as often as every 20-30 minutes between 7 a.m. – 7 p.m., according to the haul plan.
Nev Hardin, a trucker who drove a similar rig in 2002-03 during the New World Mining District cleanup around Cooke City, said that project was accomplished without incident, but it wasn’t easy.
Hardin and other drivers hauled up to 40 loads of gravel each day from Ralston over Dead Indian Pass, but “it was tough,” he said.
“We had a number of drivers that simply did not want to drive that road,” he said, adding, “all the concerns I’ve heard tonight about safety are valid.”
Childers and others said their preference would be to move all the contaminated tailings to the new repository. But Montana planners say seismic concerns allow for only about 80 percent of the tailings to be safely stored there.
Park County Commissioner Dave Burke said more than two dozen potential alternative repository sites were considered by the Forest Service, and other private mining claims exist throughout the area.
“Is there any possibility one of those sites could store the 20 percent you want to haul over the Chief Joseph?” Burke asked.
“If we can find a better way to do this and make sure we get those tailings, that material, out of the flood plane and get it stored — if we can find a better way to do that than hauling it 350 miles to Montana, we will do that,” Opper said.
Planners said they would ask Forest Service officials about using alternative sites previously deemed unsuitable for storing the full amount of tailings, but that might safely hold the remaining 20 percent.
Montana officials said that regardless of what final haul plan is developed, they will remain focused on removing the tailings from near Soda Butte Creek, a move that would benefit not just Montana, but also Yellowstone, Wyoming and the region.
“If this were easy, it wouldn’t have taken all these years” to find a solution, Nash said.