Flat Creek cleanup nears completion after 15 years

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  • The Wood Gulch Repository is located north of Superior below the old Flat Creek-Iron Mountain Mine. Once filled with mine tailings it will be covered with gravel and soil. (Kathleen Woodford/Mineral Independent).

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    Contaminated mine tailings are hauled from the old mine to the repository where it will be covered with gravel and soil. Highly contaminated tailings appear red and orange in color. (Kathleen Woodford/Mineral Independent).

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    The Flat Creek-Iron Mountain Mine operated in the late 1800’s until the mid-1900’s. Now all that remains are a few cement slabs. (Photo courtesy of Mineral County Historical Society).

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    DEQ, EPA, STAC and local community residents took a tour of the old mine site to see how the clean-up efforts were coming along and were given the opportunity to ask questions and voice their concerns. (Kathleen Woodford/Mineral Independent).

  • The Wood Gulch Repository is located north of Superior below the old Flat Creek-Iron Mountain Mine. Once filled with mine tailings it will be covered with gravel and soil. (Kathleen Woodford/Mineral Independent).

  • 1

    Contaminated mine tailings are hauled from the old mine to the repository where it will be covered with gravel and soil. Highly contaminated tailings appear red and orange in color. (Kathleen Woodford/Mineral Independent).

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    The Flat Creek-Iron Mountain Mine operated in the late 1800’s until the mid-1900’s. Now all that remains are a few cement slabs. (Photo courtesy of Mineral County Historical Society).

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    DEQ, EPA, STAC and local community residents took a tour of the old mine site to see how the clean-up efforts were coming along and were given the opportunity to ask questions and voice their concerns. (Kathleen Woodford/Mineral Independent).

The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Quality hosted a site tour of the Flat Creek-Iron Mountain Mine tailing cleanup on May 10. Members of the Superior Technical Assistance Committee (STAC) and the public met in Superior and drove up to the site north of town. It gave interested parties the opportunity to ask questions and present ideas or concerns to the departments involved with the cleanup.

The area has been a Superfund site since 2002 and the final cleanup phases are currently taking place. Joel Chavez, Project Manager with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) led the tour up to the old mill site. At the site, they have been working on excavation and disposal of tailings and impacted soil. Approximately two to three feet of top soil has been removed, totaling about 90,000 cubic yards in the Flat Creek floodplain.

Steve Ackerlund, Superior Technical Assistance Committee (STAC) technical advisor, explained that this is a “removal action” and is done relatively quickly. The standards used for this action were for human health, not necessarily for ecological health. By removing and replacing the top soil there will be still be contamination down below the surface. The EPA will be required to come back and test to see if any remedial action needs to take place.

Heavy metal contamination at the site originated from the Iron Mountain Mine which produced silver, gold, lead, copper and zinc starting in 1888 with operations into the early to mid-1900s. The tailings from the mine contain elevated concentrations of metals and have been deposited along nearly four miles of the Flat Creek floodplain, posing a continuing source of contamination to the creek.

The tailings are being removed and placed in the Wood Gulch Repository just down the road from the mill. Once completed, the tailings will be will be capped with gravel and dirt. The repository is in a location where there is no threat to the ground water. The area will be surrounded by a fence in order to keep the top soil from being disturbed.

Chavez said they plan on completing work by September but the contract goes until November, 2017. Next spring, areas along the stream which belongs to the forest service, will have tailings removed. Trees have already been cut along the stream to begin the removal process. That operation will be on a much smaller scale with more discretion. Since some of the areas are more contaminated than others causing it to be more of a “patchwork” process.

In 2009, The Flat Creek Iron Mountain Mine Superfund site was listed on EPA’s National Priorities List (NPL). In 2010 a Public Assessment report was released by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Based on that report, recommendations included that the waste tailings-contaminated areas should continue to be posted as a risk to public health and that remedial actions should be considered for these areas.

The report had consisted of four components: residential soil contamination in the town of Superior, contaminated drinking water sources, abandoned mine and milling properties, and contaminated sediments in and near Flat Creek.

Mine tailings had been brought into Superior and used as fill, road base, and driveway material more than 40 years ago. In 2002, the EPA did a remediated clean-up of the site. Mine tailings used as fill in Superior were removed which included the high school track, portions of the county fairgrounds, and a number of private driveways and roads.

Ali Archer, EPA community involvement coordinator, said they are required to review the area every five years and Superior’s five year review will take place this summer. They will be conducting resident interviews and take test samples.

Another at risk area is the acid rock drainage from an old mining adit above the mill site and contaminates along the old railroad stretching from the adit to the mill. The EPA will need to further evaluate those areas and make recommendations. However, that won’t take place until next year and further action will depend on available funding.

In 2009, STAC was formed by interested community members. The purpose of the committee was to promote public participation in the Flat Creek Iron Mountain Mine EPA Superfund project. The committee facilitator is Anita Bailey and the group is funded by a Technical Assistance Grant (TAG) from the EPA. This allowed the group to hire an independent technical adviser not associated with any of the government agencies to answer questions and provide professional review for STAC and the community.

During Wednesday’s tour and meeting a discussion was held as to whether the STAC committee is still needed and what would the committee do if it remains in place. Ackerlund said it would be easier to reapply for the funds now and give them back if not needed, rather than let the grant expire.

Some residents have been opposed to the mine cleanup since the beginning phase, including Superior resident Vicki Olson. Her grandmother lived near the mine site and she grew up playing among the tailings, eating fish out of the stream and drinking the water.

“If anyone should be sick from the contamination, it should be me,” Olson said, “but I’ve been tested for lead poisoning and I’m totally healthy.”

The Shultz family, who own a farm about two miles down the road from the old mill site, drank water from the stream for over 25 years.

“We’ve all be tested for lead poisoning and all came back negative,” said Ev Shultz.

Jim Shultz, Ev’s husband, said he has had prostate cancer and a brain tumor but doesn’t attribute that to the mine contamination.

“People get cancer everywhere,” he said.

However, USDA and forest service engineer, Bob Wintergerst said there hasn’t been enough people exposed to the area.

“If there were more people up there, you may have more showing symptoms. It’s all about risk,” he said, “and tests show high concentrations of contaminates.”

Tim Read, with the county environmental health department commented that there are areas along the creek which have no vegetation due to contamination.

He said the tailings appear orange or red in color and are on top of the ground, “since 2005 there has been signs warning the public not to play in the stream and in the area due to environmental health risks.”

The repository is located just down the road from the mill site where tailings are deposited. Once done, the area will be covered with gravel and soil. Currently, Centennial trucks are hauling cover soil from the Jensen borrow through Superior. Flaggers are stationed at the intersections of Mullan Road and Flat Creek Road. Chavez said nearly all of the workers are local’s. The STAC committee will host another tour of the site in September.

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