Clancy Creek, a tributary to Prickly Pear Creek, used to be a fine little Westslope cutthroat trout stream between Butte and Helena. About 1,000 feet of it is now confined to a 16-inch plastic pipe, precariously perched on the edge of an open pit left behind by the defunct Montana Tunnels Mine near Jefferson City.
The large gold and silver mine, which operated until 2008, has been largely abandoned by its owner. The mine facilities and unstable pit walls are collapsing, with large cracks radiating out from the pit into the surrounding lands and intersecting the streambed of Clancy Creek. This week the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is taking public comment on a reclamation plan to deal with the problem.
Although DEQ proposes to relocate the stream into a lined ditch further from the edge of the pit, conditions at the mine have deteriorated to the point where there may be no positive solution for Clancy Creek. There is no easy place to move the stream that is out of harm’s way and would keep it from draining into the pit, which would completely disconnect the remnant trout stream below.
Like so many other mines in Montana, the promises of no environmental harm and lasting jobs made during permitting have long been forgotten, and Montanans are faced with another defunct mine with an enormous and growing financial liability.
DEQ has determined that there is a roughly $20 million shortfall in the reclamation bond for Montana Tunnels, and that shortfall doesn’t include the cost of relocating Clancy Creek. A new bond amount will be calculated based on the reclamation plan.
In all reality, it seems unlikely that the mining company will post a new bond to cover the cost of fixing Clancy Creek. The company owner has repeatedly failed to post the increased bond for its other clean-up obligations at the mine, and owes Jefferson County back taxes to the tune of $5.5 million, according to a 2018 Montana Standard article.
DEQ suspended the mine’s permit in 2018, but no penalties have been assessed for the company’s failure to maintain or reclaim the site, or for causing lasting harm to a native trout stream. More importantly, it isn’t clear when DEQ will call for the existing bond, and step in to remediate the site to the extent that it can with the existing funds. The longer the delay, the worse things get, and the more expensive it is to reclaim.
This predicament isn’t anything new to Montana. Montana Tunnels is just the latest in a long line of under-bonded mining operations, including Kendall, Beal Mountain, Basin Creek, Zortman, Landusky and others. In recent years, the state and feds have forked over more than $70 million for cleanup, and they’re still on the hook for $100 million more, plus $2-3 million in annual water treatment costs at some mines that continue in perpetuity.
Despite all this, the Montana Legislature has rebuffed opportunities to bring Montana’s reclamation bonding laws up to modern standards, and repeatedly weakened our state mining laws. The legislature has cut the time limits for environmental review, allowing for extensions only if the mining company agrees – essentially letting industry dictate the length of the review process, rather than the state agency that is trusted with safeguarding our natural resources.
It also enacted legislation that prevents DEQ from imposing mitigation measures to reduce environmental impacts, unless the mining company agrees with the mitigation.
It’s frustrating to see our state faced with yet another defunct mine with more problems than solutions, a valuable native trout stream in jeopardy of becoming a waterfall into an abandoned mine pit, and taxpayers likely stuck with the bulk of cleanup costs. But it does make it easy to understand why so many Montanans oppose the permitting of the Black Butte Mine at the headwaters of our treasured Smith River.
We’ve learned the hard, costly lesson of what Montana’s mining laws leave for future generations. Montana Tunnels is just another recent example. We don’t need anymore.