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Cleanup of Ninemile watershed continues, but mining proposal has partners concerned

Trout spawn on an area of Ninemile Creek recently restored from past mining activity. (Trout Unlimited photo)

Trout Unlimited and a list of partners have spent the past six years restoring the Ninemile Creek watershed from the mainstem up to the tributaries that provide quality habitat for spawning fish and other species.

The work, intended to restore decades of mining and dredging that scoured gold off the bottom of what once was Glacial Lake Missoula, has taken place in phases over thee years, adding up to around $4.5 million.

Another phase of work will kick off this summer on a stretch of the Ninemile mainstem at a cost of around $700,000. But while the work should have been cause for celebration, project partners recently learned that a new exploratory mine has been proposed for the same area, and it could threaten years of cleanup and millions of dollars in restoration funds.

“I spent the day with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality in Kennedy Creek doing some pretty lengthy water quality testing, looking for metals because we were trying to delist Kennedy Creek as a metals listed stream,” said Paul Parson. “We were hoping our mine cleanup did that.”

Parson, the Middle Clark Fork restoration coordinator for Trout Unlimited, was leaving Kennedy Creek that day when he got an email. It said a new mine, known as the Familias Dorados Gold Exploration Project, has been proposed for the Little McCormick and Kennedy creek drainages in the Ninemile watershed.

A preliminary assessment by the Lolo National Forest suggests the exploratory mine may be able to circumvent environmental review through a categorically exclusion under new rules issued by the Trump administration.

Those rules permit “short term mineral investigation that involve trenching to obtain evidence of mineral investigation.” The Familias Dorados Gold Exploration Project looks to dig up to 20 trenches and process them in two sediment ponds using an excavator.

If authorize, the work would likely begin this fall and continue next summer, the application said.

Trout Unlimited and its long list of partners have spent several years working to restore the damage caused by similar mining activity in the past, and they have concerns about the new gold exploration project.

Among them, substantial amounts of water will be needed to process the mining waste, and Little McCormick Creek already runs dry at times due to disturbances from past placer mining. Given Montana’s history, reclamation bonding for mining and exploration work is often not enough to reclaim the sites once the work is finished.

“We sent a letter in during the comment period and stated we had significant concerns about the project,” said Kylie Paul, the natural resources specialist for Missoula County, which has been a partner in the cleanup efforts. “We requested that further work is needed to better include public comment and review.”

Past mining activity disconnected several Ninemile tributaries and left an unnatural and broken habitat before restoration.

Slag piles and dredge ponds remain in portions of the Ninemile district – a relic of the mining that took place a century ago. Destruction of the watershed led to erosion and increased stream temperatures, and it prevented bull trout and westslope cutthroat from navigating to historic spawning grounds.

But in 2004, Trout Unlimited, Missoula County and the Lolo National Forest launched a campaign to reclaim the Ninemile’s abandoned mining sites and restore the landscape to a more natural condition.

The work picked up in earnest 2014 and has been playing out every summer since. Work planned this summer marks the fourth phase of the ongoing cleanup effort, which has already improved eight different tributaries within the watershed.

For every mile of restoration, around one acre feet of additional groundwater entered Ninemile Creek each day at base flow. The work also has reduce sediment load by 860 tons a year – a figure Parson described as significant.

“When you look at sediment reduction, it’s a highly erosive material that’s in an artificially confined stream channel, so it really erodes quite a bit of material,” he said. “From a sediment and water pollution aspect, the cleanup has been pretty significant.”

Mining in the area began in the late 1880s with the discovery of gold, and it peaked at the turn of the century. The activity altered the tributaries with dredge ponds and braided channels, resulting in excessive erosion, dislocated streams and barriers for migrating fish.

It also impacted other aquatic wildlife, which had consequences up and down the food chain.

“The problem is, the folks that were mining up there were looking for a layer of gold that essentially sits on the old Glacial Lake Missoula bed,” Parson said. “It usually sits 20 or 30 feet below the current surface. That’s essentially what they went after, so to get there, they had to dig 20 or 30 feet down along the river corridor.

“All our spawning fish go to the smaller tributaries to spawn so they no longer have that connectivity. We’ve seen the loss of all kinds of aquatic wildlife.”

In 2009, TU and project partners restored areas of Little McCormick Creek from placer mining by regrading old dredge piles and restructuring the stream channel and floodplain. Other tributaries have also been restored, including a stretch of Ninemile and its associated floodplain.

“It’s remarkable to go from a place that’s been effected and see how deep these scours are and how weird it really looks, and very unnatural,” said Paul. “To then see what’s been done, even in a year or two, it looks very natural. Beavers have come in to dam up and better slow the creek to make it a more natural place. Moose are constantly being seen on wildlife cameras.”

Four phases of cleanup remain after this year, capping what seemed a daunting if not impossible task a decade ago. But the celebration once planned after completion could hinge on the outcome of the permit sought by the Familias Dorados Gold Exploration Project.

“This most likely wouldn’t have been able to happen a year ago,” Parson said. “It may be one of the first places that this is being tested to put in an exploratory mine through a categorical exclusion.”