MISSOULA (LEE) -- Seven years after the Beal Mountain Mine near Anaconda shut its doors, officials are still struggling to complete the cleanup at what was once touted as an environmentally friendly cyanide heap leach mine.
Pegasus Gold, Beal Mountain's parent company, filed for bankruptcy a year after it ended mining operations at Beal Mountain, leaving the U.S. Forest Service to reclaim the site as best it could with a $6.2 million bond.
All of that money has been spent and the bills continue to come in as the agency deals with a leaking leach pad liner and a huge waste rock pile that's putting selenium into creeks in the headwaters of the Clark Fork River.
A recent engineering evaluation and cost analysis estimates additional cleanup costs and monitoring could be more than $14.5 million.
Ray TeSoro, the Forest Service mining geologist coordinating the Beal Mountain cleanup, said costs incurred as of Nov. 1 were $14.2 million.
So far, the Forest Service has picked up $4.2 million of that tab. The state picked up another $2.5 million. A Resource Indemnity Trust Grant added another $75,000 toward the cleanup dollars spent so far.
"They thought the bond was going to be enough, but then we ran into unexpected problems after they filed bankruptcy," said TeSoro. "Since the problems cropped up after the bankruptcy, it's up to the agencies to pay for it."
The problems continue.
The most expensive part of the additional cleanup will be to find and repair the liner over the leach pad. The engineering evaluation estimated the cost to fix the liner at nearly $12 million, with an extra $1 million to treat the water that's already being stored in the pad.
"We treated between 30 to 35 million gallons of water this summer from the leach pad," said TeSoro. "Once we find the leak, that will go way down."
TeSoro said the Forest Service plans to use dye or chemical tracers in an effort to discover the location of the leak, which is thought to be on the northern edge where snow tends to accumulate.
"We're hoping to be able to pinpoint the location," he said. "If we have to replace the whole cover, it's going to be very expensive."
The main contaminants in the leach pad are cyanide and selenium. Right now, the agency plans to store the water in the pad until it can be treated by a portable reverse osmosis system.
"We can store up to 100 million gallons, although we don't want to let it get that high," said TeSoro.
The other challenge facing the agency is dealing with the selenium draining off a large waste rock pile. Selenium is harmful to fish and other aquatic life.
The Forest Service plans to pipe the water coming off the rock pile to an "infiltration gallery" where the selenium should be filtered out through the soil before the water reaches a live stream, TeSoro said.
"We also plan to do some aggressive monitoring to see if selenium is causing any problems with fish downstream," he said.
"This isn't going to be the final closure, although we'd sure like it to be," said TeSoro. "Since the Forest Service is the responsible land management agency, we can't just walk away."
"We'll continue to monitor this for years," he said.
Just downstream, members of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited will be watching the cleanup effort with interest.
The group has agreed to spearhead an extensive endeavor to restore a portion of German Gulch just down the hill from the Beal Mountain Mine. They're betting the Forest Service will be able to get the work at Beal Mountain done right this time around.
"The one thing that we can't afford to see is a catastrophic failure at the leach pad," said Josh Vincent, a chapter board member and local engineer spearheading the project. "That would kill the fishery right quick. It would kill German Gulch."
George Grant Chapter members hope that someday the nearly pure strain of westslope cutthroat trout in German Gulch will help repopulate Silver Bow Creek.
Silver Bow Creek was used as a conduit for mining, smelting, industrial and municipal wastes for more than a century. It's now in the midst of an ambitious Superfund cleanup project that should be completed around 2011.
In the meantime, the chapter has asked the state for an $876,162 grant from its Natural Resources Damage Program to do a variety of projects in German Gulch.
"It's pretty complicated," said Vincent. "We'll be addressing a lot of different issues."
The chapter has already been involved in a number of smaller projects in the area over the past few years. This new effort will include weed control, addressing public access issues, installing a fish barrier to protect westslope cutthroat, and the purchase of three small private parcels.
Most of the focus will be on a pilot stream restoration project that will rebuild a quarter-mile section of the creek in an area heavily impacted by historic mining activity.
"It's starting at basically ground zero," said Vincent. "There's no floodplain, no meanders. It's one of the worst spots on the creek."
Re-creating the meanders, pools and riffles could potentially impact fish in a negative way if the Forest Service isn't successful in stopping the release of selenium and cyanide into the creek.
"Right now, it's pretty much a straight shot and it washes those contaminants down into Silver Bow Creek," said Vincent. "If we create these pool habitats that are normally so good for fish, we could potentially see selenium and cyanide levels rise as contaminated sediment settles out."
"We don't think that will happen," he said. "It seems like it's impossible to make it any worse."
Still, Vincent said the chapter will monitor water quality, microinvertebrates and fish for four years after the restoration project is completed.
Missoula's Clark Fork Coalition worries that water quality problems will persist below the Beal Mountain Mine.
"If nothing else that we've found out over the last 30 years, cyanide heap leach liners always leak," said coalition attorney Matt Clifford. "It's going to be expensive to find that leak and fix it."
Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 523-5259 or at email@example.com.
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