HELENA – It has been almost 20 years since the Upper Tenmile Creek Mining Area was declared a Superfund site.
Cleanup for the site was originally planned to conclude by 2012, but the site remains active today. The site contains about 150 mines, and is 53 square miles in size.
Congress established in 1980the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), or as it is informally called, Superfund.
Superfund allows EPA to clean up contaminated sites, and forces the parties responsible for the contamination to either perform cleanups, or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work.
There are 28 federal Superfund sites in Montana, 25 of which are on the National Priorities List.
In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the area a federal Superfund site when it was determined to be contaminated with lead, cadmium, zinc, and other heavy metals hazardous to human health.
Mining began in the Upper Tenmile Creek area during the 1870s and continued through the 1930s.
Most of the mines were small operations that mined either zinc, lead, copper or gold.
The waste rock from these mines would either be deposited near the mines, or used as building material for the town of Rimini.
Dick Sloane of Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) says the original miners would not have known that what they were doing would still be affecting the area.
“The people that were up here were following standard practices of the time, and they didn’t realize the long term potential impacts,” says Sloane.
Because of this, and the relatively small size of the mines, no viable responsible party was determined.
The Upper Tenmile area presents a couple of unique challenges for the cleanup efforts.
The town of Rimini is located in the middle of the site and the majority of Helena gets drinking water from Tenmile creek.
To address this roughly 600,000 cubic yards of mine waste material, tailings, mine rock and sediment have been excavated from properties, and transported to a repository up on the continental divide.
Most of the Rimini household lawns have been replaced, and water has been proved to the residents. Six passive acid mine drainage treatment systems have also been set up to address outflow of water from several mines.
The city of Helena has five diversions for Tenmile Creek located above the major mine sites, to ensure the water they’re taking is not from the contaminated areas.
At the Tenmile Water Treatment Plant, the water is treated for a laundry list of contaminants such as heavy metals, nitrates and other contaminates before being ready for public consumption.
City of Helena Water Production Superintendent Jason Fladland says one issue that they do have is the zinc level for aquatic species.
“It’s a secondary standard for us, but there is also a MCL for the wastewater treatment plant,” say Fladland, “It meets drinking water standards, but not aquatic life standards.”
While zinc is relatively non-toxic to humans, it can have a harsh impact on macro-invertebrates and fish species.
According to DEQ, the estimated cost for upgrading the facility to meet the zinc-effluent standards is in excess of $50 million. DEQ hopes that in the future, they can reduce the zinc leading in the Upper Tenmile watershed drinking water to reduce the treated wastewater zinc levels, so that they meet compliance.
Fladland says Tenmile is a great source of drinking water above the Superfund site.
“It has very low alkalinity, very low hardness. Very low issues associated with taste and odor as well,” says Fladland.
As for what’s next for the Superfund site, that depends on when funds become available from the EPA. There is a high amount of competition for Superfund money across the country right now.
The immediate risk to the public has been addressed for the site, but there are still 12 significant acid mine drainage sites that need to be resolved.