Leaders celebrate successful cleanup of mine tailings, creek near Cooke City

Posted at 5:34 PM, Jul 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-15 20:34:06-04

(HELENA) State, federal and local leaders are celebrating the successful environmental restoration of an abandoned mine site and nearby creek in the Cooke City area.

Gov. Steve Bullock held a briefing in Helena Monday to discuss the cleanup of the McLaren mill and tailings site and Soda Butte Creek.

“It’s rare to be able to actually celebrate the restoration of an entire watershed from historic mining, and extraordinary to see that complete restoration of a stream at the headwaters of Yellowstone National Park,” he said.

The McLaren Mill processed metals like gold, silver, copper and lead for about 20 years, ending in 1953. Mining byproducts were held behind a tailings dam. Leaders say the dam became unstable and failed several times, allowing contaminated sediments to make their way several miles down Soda Butte Creek.

“The failing tailings impoundment represented a serious safety and environmental risk downstream in Soda Butte Creek, all the way Yellowstone National Park,” said Autumn Coleman, who previously served as the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Abandoned Mine Lands Program.

For years, Soda Butte Creek was considered the most polluted stream entering the Yellowstone National Park area. In 1996, it was added to a list of “impaired waters” under the federal Clean Water Act.

Between 2010 and 2014, DEQ completed a nearly $25 million reclamation project at the McLaren site. The agency removed about 500,000 tons of tailings, treated 110 million gallons of contaminated water and restored 1,500 feet of Soda Butte Creek’s original stream bed. Since then, testing has shown levels of metals like copper, lead and manganese are well below federal and state standards.

Now, with formal approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Soda Butte Creek is set to be removed from the impaired waters list. Leaders say it will be the first time a Montana waterway has been delisted because of an abandoned mine cleanup.

“Thanks to the good work of an extraordinary coalition, certainly, of partners including federal, state and local government and community partners, Soda Butte Creek has made history,” Bullock said.

Coleman said those partnerships were a huge part of making this milestone happen.

“Without the help from our partners – the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish, Wildlife and Parks and DNRC – this project was just too big for one agency to take on itself, so the work together that everybody did was just really critical to make this successful,” she said.

On Thursday, groups including the Beartooth Alliance, DEQ and the National Park Service will hold a celebration of the Soda Butte cleanup. You can find more information about the event here.