|Beal Mountain Mine|
In 1996, industry boosters touted Beal Mountain Mine as an ultimately environmentally-friendly cyanide heap-leach mine. Instead of making any "friendly" headlines, Beal Mountain is now instead distinguishing itself in its cleanup and reclamation stage as the latest mining fiasco to contaminate the Clark Fork's headwater streams.
Situated on mostly Forest Service land along the Continental Divide near Anaconda, Montana, Beal Mountain Mine began operations in the late 1980s. Before the mine, sampling had shown the water in nearby German Gulch to be so pure that levels of most pollutants were not at all detectable. That changed almost immediately after mining began. By 1992, for example, selenium levels were sampling out at 28 parts per billion-- over five times the state's five part-per-billion water quality standard that is supposed to protect fish. Despite the documented problems, regulators decided to let the violations slide until the mine closure and reclamation stage, years in the future.
In those intervening years, however, two things happened. First, the pollution got worse. Second, Pegasus Gold-- Beal Mountain's parent company-- filed for bankruptcy in 1998 in the wake of massive water quality violations at its Zortman-Landusky mine in north-central Montana. The bankruptcy left the state and the US Forest Service to reclaim the site as best they could with an inadequate $6.6 million bond.
On the water quality front, the problems at Beal Mountain are two-fold. The first threat involves cyanide. The system that was supposed to treat the cyanide-contaminated wastewater backfired, and regulators opted to do direct, but unpermitted, discharge into nearby Beefstraight Creek. As a result, cyanide levels downstream of the mine are as high as 23 parts per billion—a level that state law considers toxic to fish.
The second threat is selenium, a particularly nasty pollutant that accumulates in fish and insects and spreads throughout the foodchain. Here at Beal Mountain, massive waste rock piles leach selenium-rich rain and snowmelt into the groundwater, and, ultimately, into German Gulch Creek-- where the pollutant is being taken up by a genetically pure population of native cutthroat trout. Fish sampling is showing an average selenium level of 11 parts per million—two to three times the concentration that scientists typically consider toxic to fish and birds.
There's no getting around the fact that the selenium and cyanide contamination from Beal Mountain Mine are going to cause water quality problems for years to come. Cleanup here will take technical ingenuity, perseverance, political will, and funding. It will be important to apply a tenacious watchdog process to ensure regulating agencies explore a complete range of reclamation options. And the next time industry wants Montana to open its doors to cyanide heap-mining once again, we will turn to a vivid example at Beal Mountain as argument for keeping this dangerous technology away from our rivers, lakes, and streams.
We are currently researching and commenting on the Forest Service's anticipated amendment to the existing cleanup decision, which calls for additional funding to fix cyanide contamination in nearby creeks. We are also working extensively with partner groups to use Beal Mountain as a case study for reforming the antiquated 1872 Mining Law.
Of the many concerns the Coalition has had regarding reclamation blunders at Beal Mountain, two were compressed into lawsuits in Dec. 2002. The first lawsuit we filed was a state-court challenge to the Clean Water Act permit that Montana's Dept. of Environmental Quality issued for the mine back in Oct. 2002. The other was a federal court challenge against the US Forest Service under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). At the time, the two agencies were jointly responsible for reclaiming the mine, which sits largely on Forest Service land.
At issue in the NEPA lawsuit was the Forest Service's failure to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS) before treating and discharging cyanide-laden water stored in the mine's leach pad. The treatment system never worked properly, and wound up causing high levels of cyanide to show up in the formerly pristine Beefstraight Creek. Our lawsuit focused not on suspending operations at the plant-- which would have meant the re-accumulation of leach pad wastewater and more discharge issues-- rather, it asked the government to look for ways to mitigate the harm caused by the illegal discharge.
Apparently our move got the Forest Service's attention. The agency eventually decided to handle further cleanup at the mine under CERCLA, the so-called Superfund law. This development has had its pros and cons. On the pro side, it signals that environmental regulators recognize the severity of the mess at Beal Mountain and acknowledge that some forward momentum needs to get established to deal with it. Then there is the con side: Superfund sites are normally exempt from EIS or permit requirements. As a result, both our lawsuits were suddenly on less stable legal footing. The upshot was that we settled the federal case and the state challenge was ruled moot. But we also ended up securing strongly-worded guarantees requiring the Forest Service to consult us and our technical staff at all stages of developing and implementing a cleanup plan. In this way, clean water will have a voice.
For other insights into the Beal Mountain Mine cleanup, read the following resources and clips: