Project prioritizes mine reclamation, economy

Once booming in mining, Southwest Montana continues to produce valuable products from even old and abandoned mines.

“In some cases, hard rock mining left a legacy of environmental degradation and public health effects,” Monique DiGiorgio of Future West, a non-profit community consulting group from Bozeman, said.

Future West is conducting an analysis with support from the Montana DNRC, Madison and Jefferson counties, Golden Sunlight Mine and various other foundations. The analysis prioritizes abandoned mine sites that are of the highest ecological value.

“We prioritized the sites using a three-model approach,” DiGiorgio said. “That is wildlife, landscape and environment. We designated the highest priority red and then it is a gradient down to green or the lowest priority.”

The number of sites was more than 8,000 when DiGiorgio began. She and others have narrowed that number down to a little more than 300 sites now. Those sites are cross-referenced with abandoned mines that are being re-mined by small miners.

Dubbed the Montana Headwaters Mine Reclamation Project, implementation is set for this fall and beyond after 20-40 of the highest ranked sites are identified through visits this summer and early fall.

The project has been in the works for the past year. Its aim is to analyze a cost recovery mechanism that allows the proceeds from reprocessing mine tailings to restore abandoned hard rock mine sites; utilize existing data on the locations, size, ownership, mineral yield estimates and environmental hazards to prioritize the mines; and coordinate and implement this regional mine reclamation initiative that improves the environment, addresses mine related safety issues, provides jobs and stimulates local economies.

The sites, which are mainly in a 75-mile radius around Whitehall, include properties on Forest Service, BLM, patented and fee simple private lands, according to project officials. Golden Sunlight Mine in Whitehall is currently processing third party ore, not utilizing taxpayer money to clean up the abandoned sites. Project officials said they hope the price of gold remains steady so that re-mining continues to be profitable. No private landowners or owners of mineral rights at the sites cared to be interviewed for this article.

Mining is not the only reason for all this work. Coordinated efforts between the mining and conservation community are looking for additional conservation opportunities, such as fish and bat habitat restoration.

“We do a lot of basic field measurements at each site,” Loren Franklin of KC Harvey said. KC Harvey is an environmental consulting and field services firm in Bozeman.

Franklin said more testing would be done after the sites were prioritized. The initial tests that are done include a Ph water test of nearby streams, creeks and any wastewater from the mine; testing of any tailings on the site; and examination of the site for possible animal – bats, amphibians, reptiles, and fish – habitats. They also look for historical features that might reveal who mined the site before, the tools they used and more.

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