It's one of the largest mine reclamation projects ever undertaken in Montana.
While it will be years before we know how effective the Mike Horse Mine cleanup has been, there are already indications it is working, and developing new approaches that could help across the West.
Five years ago, when Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies launched the massive cleanup at Mike Horse Mine east of Lincoln, the scale of the project was hard to fathom.
The impoundment dam that partially failed in the mid ‘70s is gone, the repository containing 44,000 truckloads of contaminated soil is being capped, the last traces of the Mike Horse Mine are gone, and the water is running clear.
Dave Bowers oversees the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex as Project Manager for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. He's astonished at the difference.
"I look at this and after being since 2002 I still can't believe that I'm seeing the vegetation coming in the way it is,” Bowers said.
In fact, with the contaminants and toxic mud and clay, known as "blue goo" removed, fish are already returning to the streams. Bowers says biologists found an 11-inch brook trout, and a Westslope cutthroat Beartrap Creek this summer.
"All along our goal was to re-establish the fisheries through here. It was one of the mandates with the bankruptcy settlement,” Bowers said.
That $59 million settlement with Montana and ASARCO is paying for the work.
During the weekend tour, Bowers explained as restoration has taken place, biologists and botanists are developing groundbreaking technics for replanting, placing "woody debris" for fish and wildlife habitat, slope recovery, using resources from right here in the valley. That's caught the attention of other states.
"We're seeing a transition and I think we're right there at the front end of it, where you're using more materials that are localized, a different kind of stream construction than what's seen in the Eastern United States and so forth,” Bowers said.
The first results are encouraging to Bowers. Lead and arsenic are below target levels. And trees are coming back. And while the major construction nears completion, the research, monitoring and water treatment will continue.
"We need to finish off the rest of the stream channel construction and flood plain construction. We'll be back next year to do the rest of the vegetation work. And then our focus will turn to monitoring, as far as performance monitoring and assessing what we need to do next down the road, maybe three to four years from now,” Bowers said.
The recovery at the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex is even more remarkable when you think "what could have been."
In the 1960s, Anaconda Corporation had worked the idea of developing the area along Beartrap Creek into an open pit mine, rivaling the Butte Pit, complete with rail connections, and even a tunnel under Rogers Pass. But the project died from a combination of tougher environmental rules and falling copper prices in the early ‘70s.