Yankee Doodle tailings pond

Montana Resources trucks move dirt last year near the Yankee Doodle tailings pond north of Butte.


The state wants Montana Resources to shorten the length of time it will take the company to reclaim Yankee Doodle Tailings Pond, but the company says it can’t be done.

MR is currently in the midst of acquiring its permit to enlarge the place, north of the mine, where it stores the waste from copper and molybdenum mining. When the tailings pond reaches capacity, it could take 30 to 40 years for the pond to be fully reclaimed, said Garrett Smith, Department of Environmental Quality geochemist.

But DEQ would prefer MR to reclaim the tailings pond sooner. If MR sent 576,000 gallons of contaminated water from a seepage in the tailings pond to Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant and discharged it, then MR could reclaim the tailings pond seven years earlier than MR’s current projections, says DEQ. (See information box.)

MR’s current plan is to send that seeping water back into the tailings pond. The more water in the tailings pond now, the longer it will take for MR to reclaim the pond in the future.

Smith said last week that if the mine begins reclaiming the impoundment in 2031, after its permit ends, the reclamation process would continue until roughly 2070.

But if the mine did implement the preferred alternative now and sent that 576,000 gallons elsewhere, the company could have the pond reclaimed by 2063, the agency says.

Mark Thompson, MR vice president for environmental affairs, says MR will likely “have to reject” DEQ’s preferred alternative.

“We don’t want to be in that position,” Thompson said, but Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant was built as part of the Berkeley Pit’s Superfund consent decree in 2002, Thompson said. So the mining company can’t just do what it wants with the plant. Atlantic Richfield Company and MR built the plant 17 years ago to treat contaminated water from the Berkeley Pit and a few other sources, Thompson said.

“It (the consent decree) was approved by a federal judge,” Thompson said. “I don’t know what it means to change that.”

Herb Rolfes, DEQ operating permit section supervisor, said that DEQ can't enforce the agency’s preferred alternative. MR’s permit application last year to raise the tailings pond by 50 feet to 6,450 feet elevation was complete and compliant. Rolfes said the permit application met all the requirements for the Metal Mine Reclamation Act.

“We can’t force them to go above and beyond that,” Rolfes said.

The current plan will disturb about another 100 more acres, which includes access roads, soil stockpiles, and other features, as well as water.

Rolfes said the mine has reserves “well past” the additional nine years of life MR is asking for. If this amendment goes through, MR’s permit for storage will take them to 2031.

Smith said that as long as the mine has somewhere to put the tailings waste, the company can likely keep mining.

“They can operate as long as the impoundment won’t reach capacity for tailings. You can’t mine without a place to put tailings,” Smith said.

Rolfes said the mine could apply for another amendment when it gets close to the 2030 end date and potentially, raise the tailings impoundment higher than 6,450 feet.

The reclamation, when it happens, will involve a cap of rock and soil, then it will be vegetated. There will still be a much smaller clear-water pond at the north end.

No one who spoke at the DEQ’s public meeting last week at the Clarion Inn Copper King Convention Center brought up the preferred alternative or any potential environmental impact the tailings impoundment might have. All four who spoke, instead, focused on MR’s positive economic impact and said the company has been a good neighbor to Butte.

Corey Markovich, vice president of Markovich Construction, said MR employs not only “nearly 400” miners, but also hires contractors, such as his firm, in the community.

“They’re important to my family,” he said.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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