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Old mine wastes threaten Yellowstone's Soda Butte Creek.

ONE OF YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK'S most popular fly-fishing rivers is threatened by mine tailings that, if set free by a heavy spring runoff, could poison and kill the ecosystem that supports its trout. Fly fishers should support the removal of the old mine tailings as part of the New World Mine cleanup settlement arranged in 1996 by President Clinton.

Five miles upstream from the northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park, Soda Butte Creek begins in snow-fed springs that join small, steep tributaries just east of Cooke City, Montana. The stream meanders toward Yellowstone Park through a mix of dense timber and open meadow, sometimes hidden within dark silver-green thickets.

Not far into the Park, Soda Butte Creek cuts its way through deep Ice Box Canyon before spilling onto the sagebrush flats and past the extinct hot-spring cone of travertine for which the stream is named, The stream runs from 20 to 30 feet wide, coursing its way through large gravel, bars, riffles, and pools as it meanders down the sage-and-grass-covered valley to join the Lamar River.

At dusk in late July, with the sweet mingling aroma of sage and evergreen flooding your senses, you cast a Blue Dun to a pool near an undercut bank on a bend below the Soda Butte cone. Suddenly a 16-inch native cutthroat explodes on your fly and the quiet is broken. Moments later, as you release the spotted-black and amber-brown beauty, you look up toward the towering peaks and sheer vertical cliffs that surround you and this gentle valley. The problems and pollution of modern life fade into the dwindling light, and all seems right with the world.

Sadly, the reality, that shatters this magical illusion lies, but inches from your feet. Soda Butte Creek is a stream in peril, the victim of more than 65 years of serious mining pollution near its headwaters outside the park.

What Happened?

FROM 1933 TO 1953, the McLaren Gold Mining Company deposited from 150,000 to 370,000 cubic yards of waste in the floodplain just below Soda Butte Creek's headwaters. The toxic tailings came from ore processed by the nearby McLaren Mine, an open-pit gold and copper mine located near Cooke City and on the saddle between Fisher and Henderon mountains.

When the mine and mill were operational, tailings were pumped into a settling pond through which Soda Butte Creek flowed. Even, during those years, mining reports suggest that the highly toxic, sulfide-rich tailings posed a serious environmental problem.

A 1937 mining company memorandum reveals the concern: "The present milling plant is situated one mile east of Cooke City on Soda Butte Creek, which drains into Yellowstone Park. . . . this drainage in entering the Park introduces serious complications."

The complications did not go unnoticed by Yellowstone Park. A 1949 memorandum from a Yellowstone National Park ranger says: "The main flow of Soda Butte Creek is currently diverted under the McLaren tailings pond through a four-foot culvert. . . . The McLaren operation gains an advantage by encouraging the loss of past years' sediments during high water to avoid the cost of heightening the dikes around the settling pond."

In 1950, a McLaren inspection memorandum from the same park ranger noted that "mill tailings are entering the creek through a large breach of the earthen wall which surrounds the main settling pool. The tailings dam had been washed out by a rainstorm on June 23, 1950."

In 1953, the McLaren Gold Mining Company's last year of operation, the Anaconda Company reported on the mine and mill after it was offered to them for purchase: "Tailings pond overflow has been a problem for the mine as the pollution of Soda Butte Creek causes trouble with park authorities. ..." Anaconda declined the offer for purchase and the mine shut down.

For the next 16 years the McLaren mill site and tailings remained idle, continuing to pollute Soda Butte Creek unabated.

In 1969 the Bear Creek Mining Company, a subsidiary of Kennecott Copper Corporation, bought the property and rehabilitated the McLaren tailings deposit by diverting Soda Butte Creek to the north edge of the tailings and covering them with soil. They tore down the mill buildings and reseeded the area. But subsequent water chemistry studies con-ducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed no decreases in iron, copper, or zinc levels in Soda Butte Creek following the project.

In 1982, CAMJAC, Inc., a small group of independent investors headquartered in Great Falls, Montana, bought the tailings from Kennecott Copper and announced it would process them for leftover ore (then valued at over $7 million before gold's steep drop in price).

When CAMJAC's plan to process the tailings failed, the firm tried to contract with other mining companies to do so in exchange for royalties. At one point CAMJAC leased the tailings to a firm that was going to truck the rock over Wyoming Route 296 toward Cody to process and dispose of it, but amid concems about the tailings washing downstream into Yellowstone Park, the EPA stepped in and ordered remedial action, requiring previous owner Kennecott to stabilize the spoils.

In 1989, through an EPA Superfund emergency response action, the existing Soda Butte channel and tailings impoundment were renovated to accommodate a 100-year flood. Modifications included riprap along the stream's banks to prevent flooding by Soda Butte Creek and breach of the tailings dam.

In March 1990, an evaluation of the work was prepared for the EPA. Based on their findings, investigators concluded that the tailings dam is only marginally stable under static conditions, and is potentially unstable during dynamic events, such as heavy spring floods. In addition, surface erosion is scouring the face of the tailings dam because reseeding efforts have been only marginally successful. Discharge from surface runoff near the installed pipe drain can still be seen during spring runoff.

Although the tailings have been leveled and capped and the creek relocated around the tailings, the old creek channels probably still contribute flow to Soda Butte Creek directly through the tailings dam. Much of the mill site ore pile is situated on U.S. Forest Service property, and deep gullies erode unprocessed ore materials containing high concentrations of soluble metals and acid-producing pyrite.

The Damage

STUDIES BY GOVERNMENT, university, and private scientists reveal that the McLaren tailings site is causing serious water quality and habitat problems to Soda Butte Creek and Yellowstone National Park. Despite all the corrective measures, the site continues to hurt and threaten the Soda Butte Creek ecosystem.

Yellowstone National Park's Bureau of Sport Fisheries Reports from the 1970s concluded that "sedimentation and heavy-metal residues from the abandoned McLaren Gold Mine at the headwaters of Soda Butte Creek have caused this to be the most polluted stream in the park."

Studies by Mills and Sharpe (1968) indicated that "invertebrate forms have been reduced in species and numbers from the pollutants."

In his paper, A Polluted Flash Flood and Its Consequences, ("Yellowstone Science" 2(1): 2-6, 1993), Dr. Grant Meyer reported sediment containing copper between 310 and 1,200 ppm and lead between 100 and 400 ppm extending along Soda Butte Creek's banks far into Yellowstone Park. These copper levels substantially exceed those considered to be toxic to plants, and the lead concentrations are near the toxic threshold.

Dr. Meyer warns that the tailings-dam failure and resulting sediment contamination in the Soda Butte drainage illustrate the high potential for future flood erosion, transport, and dispersal of fine-grained toxic mine wastes.

In a 1999 paper, Dr. Del Nimmo and others concluded that "metals must be considered as part of the aquatic and riparian ecosystems within and along Soda Butte Creek extending into Yellowstone Park because they are elevated in water, sediment, and biota collected there. . . . Tissue concentrations of copper found in invertebrates and fish were comparable to tissue levels found in fish from other areas known to be highly toxic."

Dr. Andrew Marcus of Montana State University continues to work an ongoing research project that has produced vital information documenting the effects of pollution from the McLaren tailings site.

"Our research very clearly shows the impacts of past tailings releases," Marcus says, adding that the extent of the damage to the Soda Butte Creek drainage extends well into Yellowstone Park.

Dr. Marcus says that within the grasslands community in the floodplain of Soda Butte Creek, there is decreased biodiversity and decreased biomass. "Clearly the tailings caused the problem," he says. In addition, Marcus found that the aquatic population had been harmed by the tailings.

He compared the macroinvertebrate population of Soda Butte Creek below the McLaren tailings to that of Pebble Creek, which has never been mined and is inside Yellowstone Park. In Pebble Creek, researchers found 19 different types of organisms. In Soda Butte Creek below the tailings, they found only 6.

In addition to plant and insect damage, Dr. Marcus's researchers also found evidence of "bio-accumulation" in fish (elevated copper concentrations found in tissue), particularly in the liver and muscle tissue.

The overwhelming body of scientific evidence proves that the continuing release of acidic, heavy-metal-contaminated water from the McLaren tailings and mill site is severely hurting Soda Butte Creek's ecosystem. This toxic release violates state and federal water-quality standards and compromises water quality within Yellowstone National Park. Failure of the tailings dam would result in a substantial release of contaminated material into Soda Butte Creek. The environmental effects of such a release would be major. And it would extend downstream, far into Yellowstone Park and into the Lamar River, which flows into the Yellowstone River.

What Can Be Done

OVER A DECADE AGO another mining company made plans to extract ore from nearby Henderson Mountain, which contains high concentrations of acid-producing materials. Known as the New World Mine, it would have created a tailings impoundment the size of 70 football fields, containing 5.5 million tons of acidic mine wastes.

The mine proposal sparked strong opposition across the nation, and in August 1996, President Clinton announced the New World Agreement, which called for the mining company to cease its efforts to develop the mine and to transfer its holdings in the district to the federal government. In return, the company was paid $65 million, with $22.5 million to be set aside in an escrow account to underwrite reclamation of historic mining pollution at the Henderson and other area sites (which have been mined since the late 1800s).

Cleanup efforts have begun under the direction of the Forest Service, and it appears that a key remediation element will be building a central repository that could be large enough to also hold some or all of the McLaren Mine tailings site waste materials. The inclusion of McLaren tailings waste into a central repository away from the Soda Butte Creek floodplain can provide a realistic environmental solution.

Unfortunately, the central repository answer is not clear and simple. The site most likely to be chosen for the New World Mine repository is uphill and less than a mile from Soda Butte Creek. Conservationists fear that toxic leakage from the repository could contaminate ground water flowing into Soda Butte Creek, annulling the benefits of removing the wastes from the floodplain. The Center for Science in Public Participation, a public interest technical support group from Bozeman, Montana, has requested that the Forest Service include a bottom liner and a leachate detection/collection system as part of the repository design.

In addition, the New World Mining District Response and Restoration cleanup process is governed by the complex intertwining of a legally restrictive consent decree, EPA rules and regulations, and Forest Service policy. This combined process guidance has slated the McLaren tailings site for possible cleanup only after all other district property has been remediated (perhaps eight years in the future), and only if available funds are left over from the preceding overall restoration project.

Whether it is part of the ongoing reclamation or a stand-alone project, the McLaren tailings site must be permanently cleaned up, and the sooner the better. Whether this is achieved by moving the waste to a central location or by another remedy, the ultimate solution must be safe and long-lasting. Sixty-five years of pollution is enough. The McLaren has worked its poison into the Soda Butte drainage for over half the time that Yellowstone has been a national park.

We must contact the Gallatin National Forest, Yellowstone National Park, Environmental Protection Agency, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and our political representatives, asking that they seek a definite funding and action commitment to clean up the McLaren mine tailings.

They need to know that while the ongoing damage to Soda Butte Greek is significant, failure of the poorly constructed tailings dam would be catastrophic, smothering fish spawning grounds and damaging the Soda Butte and Lamar ecosystems in Yellowstone Park far into the future.

You can obtain additional information and a sample letter about this issue from the Virtual Flyshop, You can contribute to the McLaren tailings site cleanup effort by contacting the Park County Environmental Council, P.O. Box 164, Livingston, MT 59047, (406) 222-0723.

RALPH GLIDDEN and his wife Sue have owned and operated the historic Cooke City Store for 25 years. Ralph was a leading opponent of the New World Mine.
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Title Annotation:Yellowstone's Soda Butte Creek
Publication:Fly Fisherman
Geographic Code:1U8MT
Date:Sep 1, 2000

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