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Montana Resources gets OK to raise tailings dam, keep mining
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Montana Resources gets OK to raise tailings dam, keep mining

A wall of orange dirt

A truck hauls a load of dirt to dump on the Yankee Doodle dam. Waste rock is deposited on the dam every day, say mine officials. 

The Department of Environmental Quality gave its final approval to Montana Resources to raise the Yankee Doodle Tailings Dam by 50 feet on the west side Friday.

This means that MR has up until at least 2031 before it will need to go through another major permit process to keep mining.

The news comes as no surprise. MR has had relatively smooth sailing through the two-year-long permitting process. But had it not gone well for MR, the mine would have had to shut down within a few years. Without an ability to store mine waste, MR could not keep mining.

DEQ announced earlier this month that the mining company was within grasp of getting the permit when the state agency issued its environmental impact statement in mid August.

Few questions were raised at the multiple public meetings that have been held since 2017 and, mostly, the mine has received overwhelming support.

What may have been the biggest hiccup came last spring when Atlantic Richfield Company questioned the fact that MR had not included an inundation report that gave a worst-case scenario in the event the dam failed. That report came out in early 2019.

But both MR and county officials said the report had been created so officials would know how to respond in the event of an emergency and that other high hazard dams in Montana have one. DEQ weighed in earlier this month, saying that the inundation report did not consider the stability of the dam nor take into consideration the likelihood of a breach happening.

The other twist in the fairly smooth road for MR came from DEQ itself. Last spring, DEQ said it would like to see MR shorten the time it would take to reclaim the impoundment after mine closure. But to follow DEQ’s plan, MR would have to agree to send more water to the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant from the impoundment. MR, which shares liability on the Berkeley Pit and the plant built to treat the pit’s water, doesn’t have the authority to agree to that by itself. What happens to Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant falls under EPA jurisdiction because it is part of the remedy to treat the pit's toxic lake.

This caused some tremors for MR. Thompson told the Council of Commissioners at the time that to disagree with DEQ’s preferred closure plan could set the mine up for lawsuits.

DEQ acknowledged in its environmental impact statement earlier this month that MR needed to get approval from both the EPA and Atlantic Richfield, in order to agree to their preferred impoundment closure plan. Instead of boxing MR into a corner on the issue, the agency set a deadline for MR to hold a meeting with the EPA and Atlantic Richfield to discuss adding water from the impoundment to the water treatment plant.

That deadline for that meeting is September 1, 2022.

After that, MR will provide a report to DEQ. Based on the meeting, DEQ could modify the permit. If all the Superfund negotiators agree to DEQ's preferred plan, the tailings pond be reclaimed seven years sooner.

Thompson said DEQ's approval means continued mining in Butte, which started as a mining camp in 1864 and has had almost continuous mining ever since.

“A lot of people put a lot of work into that permit,” Thompson said.

MR began preparing for it as early as 2012. Thompson said the roughly 360 employees at MR would be happy to hear the news.

Thompson also said MR’s permit process is the first to go through the new standards set the Montana Legislature passed in 2015 to make the process more rigorous.


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Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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