Cleaning up the Little Blackfoot

By Rob Roberts
In November 2008, a plume of orange, metals-laden water rushed down the Little Blackfoot River, coloring it for miles downstream.  An adit at an abandoned mine site had backed up and blown out – similar to the recent and highly publicized event on the Animas River.  
But this toxic slurry would garner no national coverage and remains unmitigated to this day. While Superfund actions are cleaning up the mainstem Clark Fork River and many tributaries are undergoing a massive facelift – more than $60 million dollars has been allocated from a settlement with Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) over past natural resource damages – the headwaters of the Little Blackfoot River lie outside the legal scope of this historic restoration program.  
Yet the impact to fisheries and water quality from legacy hardrock mining is undeniable:  The Little Blackfoot River has seven tributaries listed by the EPA as impaired by metals, and fifteen mine sites in the Little Blackfoot River watershed are found on the Montana State Priority Mine List.  
At the same time, the state of Montana’s environmental agency lost its federal appropriation that funded its hardrock mine cleanup efforts, and the Forest Service is facing annual budget shortfalls. To counteract this lack of capacity and available funding, Trout Unlimited has spearheaded an effort to organize a coalition of private landowners, local governments and other stakeholders to increase the scope and scale of abandoned mine reclamation in the Little Blackfoot River watershed.  
TU first completed a Metals Restoration Strategy for the Little Blackfoot River, which identified the primary causes of metals impairment, described management measures needed to achieve metals reductions, and prioritized future reclamation actions and then developed MOUs with the Helena National Forest, Powell County and Deer Lodge Valley Conservation District to facilitate assessment, design and implementation. In the last six months alone, TU has helped secure more than half a million dollars water and soil sampling and on-the-ground reclamation projects.  The first mine reclamation project from this effort – removing 4,000 cubic yards of contaminated waste rock from Telegraph Creek at the Lilly Orphan Boy Mine – will take place in the summer of 2016.

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