Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Roger Dey
Blackfoot Valley Dispatch 

Cleanup work to to resume at UBMC, but funding, timeline for completion uncertain


Roger Dey

An area along the Blackfoot River about midway between the UBMC water treametn plant and the EE/CA clean up boundary shows layers of contaminated material washed downstream in 1975.

Personnel from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Natural Resource Damage Program and U.S. Forest Service provided an update on the status of the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex mine waste cleanup operation during the June 19 meeting of the Upper Blackfoot Valley Community Council in Lincoln.

Work to clean up mine waste at the UBMC is expected to resume in July, after a nearly year-long delay that stemmed from a "disconnect" among state and federal agencies on how best to use the money remaining in a fund established in a settlement with ASARCO in 2008 for the area's reclamation and restoration.

The original $39 million in settlement funding for the operation was based on an estimated removal of only about 500,000 cubic yards of mine waste. To date, the remediation work has already moved nearly 700,000 cubic yards of contaminated tailings, with an additional 300,000 cubic yards remaining.

However, with approximately 21 acres restored, nearly 4000 feet of creek rebuilt and water standards in the Mike Horse and Beartrap Creeks now at or near standards after four years of work, Remediation Division Administrator Jenny Chambers called the project thus far "extremely successful."

"We always run into unknowns and situations we never would have ever contemplated based on this type of work," said Chambers, referring to unforeseen circumstances that impact the budget and the project timeline, such as the discovery of the additional contaminated tailings that pushed the schedule back by a year.

Moving forward, there is a degree of uncertainty regarding both funding and the timeline for completing the project to the boundary of the Engineering Evaluation/Cost Analysis clean up area established in 2007.

Last week $11.2 million remained in the settlement fund and DEQ's Chambers admitted that means there will be a gap in funding of up to $5 million based on the work they have left to accomplish, which includes permanently sealing the repository near Highway 279.

The plan

The bid package for the remainder of the work at the UBMC was released June 6.

"We should get those (bids) together on (June) 27th, and those would be opened and we'll hopefully be able to award it to a contractor soon thereafter," said DEQ's UBMC Construction Manager Shelley Haaland. "We've got the bid...that will actually tie the confluence of Mike Morse and Beartrap Creeks running all the way through the Beartrap Canyon to the water treatment plant. We're going to do all the reclamation, restoration and remediation."

That "base bid" in the package covers the work that must be done this construction season. Additive Alternatives A and B are additions to the bid package that can be picked up if the contactor meets the base bid and still has time left in the season to continue working.

When the base bid and both the additive alternatives are finished, removal of about 260,000 additional cubic yards of mine waste will be completed to the Edith Mine area, which marks the EE/CA boundary.

The bid package doesn't include the area of the upper marsh on Forest Service land that contains nearly 45,000 cubic yards of contaminated material. That area lies beyond the clean-up area boundary and would require an Action Memorandum from the Forest Service to allow for removals.

The hope is that the removal of all the mine waste from the confluence to the EE/CA boundary can be completed this year. While that would provide a cost saving through an efficiency of scale, Haaland sounded a note of caution.

"I think it's do-able in a summer, but of course it always depends on which summer we get," she said.

Future funding

Restoration of the floodplain in Beartrap Canyon to the water treatment plant is also slated to be completed this year, but Chambers said restoration and revegetation of the valley between the water treatment plan and EE/CA the boundary will probably rely on funding from elsewhere.

"Hopefully we can have a cheaper bid and have some cost savings there," Chambers said. "That will also help with the long-term strategy and plan based upon the money that's needed. In the meantime, we are actively pursuing additional funding."

She said a pair of DNRC Resource Development Grants are a possible source of funding. If both are approved during the 2019 legislative session, they could provide $800,000. Another option could be to pull state dollars DEQ receives through appropriations for remediation work from another project to the UBMC.

"If needed we'll look for additional grants in the 2021 legislative session, but may not need to wait that long if we can secure the money in the next year or so," Chambers said

Timeline questions

The presentation left some questions about the actual timeline for completing the project and permanently closing the Mine waste repository.

As Haaland alluded, removal of all the remaining mine wastes this summer is dependent on favorable weather, while the completion of the restoration down to the boundary by the end of 2019 is dependent on both weather and the ability to find funding to cover shortfalls.

Additionally, if that all does workout, Chambers said they'd like to wait a year or two to monitor the work they've done, take a closer look at the wetlands in the upper marsh and gather data for a possible Action Memorandum by the Forest Service for removal of contaminated material.

That would push the project and permanent closure of the mine waste repository to 2020 or 2021 at the earliest, or possibly longer if mine waste removals in the marsh are deemed necessary.

Char McGinnis, who lives across Highway 279 from the repository, told Chambers that sounds like they're kicking the can down the road.

"To me, that feels like putting things off further and further down the road for anyone who lives around here," she said.

Repository concerns

Chambers, who said earlier in the meeting she heard "loud and clear" last fall that residents wanted to see the repository permanently closed sooner rather than later. called that a fair statement and said she's optimistic about the timeline and funding.

"If we have to close the repository because the wetlands work isn't going to have the money in a timely fashion...we're not gonna leave that thing open for ten years while we do wetlands work," she said.

However, the possibility of going back in and removing mine waste after the repository was permanently closed raised the specter of seeing waste hauled to a site out of the area, possibly through Lincoln, or the need for a second repository near the UBMC at one of the sites looked at several years ago.

Haaland said a temporary closure of the repository can be stable for some time, and that there's no reason, other than weather or lack of funding, that they can't store waste excavated from the marsh in the existing repository.

A map published in the MTDEQ's June's Mike Horse Messenger shows the estimated waste remaining in the UBMC, as well as pertinent landmarks used to define of the remaining work area.

"I think everybody in this room understands the economics. If we don't put it into that repository it's going to cost more when we do find the money. If we have to site a new repository, there's a public process that we're all intimately familiar with." she said. "It's a whole new ballgame. Those costs are substantially more, so the hope is to find the money before that becomes an option."

"I'm hoping one year will be enough to make a determination," Chambers said after McGinnis asked about a more certain timeline." That is 2020. I would say by 2021 we'd have everything wrapped up a decision made on what we need to get accomplished and have the repository closed,

Following the meeting, Chambers conceded that timeline was the best-case scenario.

"We will have to come back each year and re-determine what that timeline's going to be," Chambers told the BVD. "I don't believe we would leave the repository temporarily closed for more than five years after completion. That doesn't seem realistic to me to go much longer than that. That would be the worst case. We better make a decision by 2126."


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