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Despite waste sediment, Warm Springs Ponds lauded for birding, sporting opportunities

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Warm Springs Ponds have an arsenic problem and contain 19 million cubic yards of mine and smelting waste, say officials.

Allie Archer, the Environmental Protection Agency project manager, said the ponds exceed the state’s water quality standards in late summer and fall months for arsenic.

But, she said, EPA has put limits on recreating at the ponds. Swimming is not allowed. Fishing regulations say not to eat the fish, she said. So, EPA doesn’t think the arsenic causes harm, though she said the EPA wants to reevaluate that in the coming years.

What the ponds’ future will be is the next big question. Powell County and the Clark Fork Coalition officials organized the meeting in the hope of starting the discussion now that the long-awaited Butte Hill consent decree appears to be in its final stages of completion. The Clark Fork Coalition is a nonprofit that has been very focused on the upper Clark Fork River cleanup.

Archer said trying to speculate on the ponds’ future at this point in time is a bit too soon.

Not until all the upstream remedy work is complete will the fate of the ponds be decided, she said. Lime treatment is added to the Silver Bow Creek water that enters into the ponds and there are still sources of contamination coming downstream from the creek.

“The ponds are needed to remain in place until all the upstream sources (for metals) are remediated,” Archer said earlier this week. “That includes West Side Soils.”

West Side Soils is the portion of Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site that the EPA is just now investigating, despite the fact that the EPA declared the area a Superfund site in 1983. West Side Soils is defined as west and north of the Butte Hill.

Given the ponds’ role in capturing upstream contamination, Archer said she’s not sure how the ponds can meet the 2024 delisting deadline set by Doug Benevento, former EPA Region 8 administrator. 

Warm Springs Ponds

Allie Archer, EPA project manager, points to areas of the Warm Springs Ponds on a large aerial map of the Superfund area as she explains the work that has been done to the contaminated areas.

But, despite the fact that the ponds’ prospects are still quite a distance from getting to certainty, around 75 people showed up at the meeting in Deer Lodge earlier this week to talk about the ponds and what might become of them.

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Gary Swant, a local bird expert, said the ponds are one of the best birding areas in the state.

He said 218 of the 439 bird species recorded in the Big Sky state land on the ponds.

“It’s a breeding area par excellence,” Swant said.

He found 17,560 birds on the ponds on Monday alone. There were approximately 80,000 birds on the ponds this past spring, he said.

“Let’s not lose this,” he said.

He says he hopes that at least one of the ponds will be maintained into the future for birds. He said around 300,000 birds use the ponds as a place to rest during migration season.

He’s also noticed a correlation between birds landing on the ponds and on the Berkeley Pit. Swant is part of Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield Company’s bird expert group that advises the companies on how to keep birds off the deadly water at the pit.

He said that when the ponds freeze, more birds land on the pit’s lake. He suggested at least one pond be aerated to keep it from freezing in colder months as another way to keep birds off the Berkeley Pit.

Silver Bow Creek at the Warm Springs Ponds

Silver Bow Creek flows into the Warm Springs Ponds. The ponds protect the upper Clark Fork River from the metals that are still flowing down Silver Bow Creek. 

Josh Bryson, Atlantic Richfield liability business manager, noted that a cow and calf moose were spotted at the ponds Tuesday afternoon and an angler caught a 12-pound rainbow trout Tuesday morning at the ponds.

But Greg Mullen, Natural Resource Damage Program environmental science specialist, said 19 million cubic yards of waste in the ponds “needs a lot of thought.”

The 2,500 acres of ponds have long acted as settling basins for metals for roughly 100 years of copper mining and smelting. The Anaconda Company built the ponds in the early 1900s.

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