How Montana fouled a family's water

  • A defunct gold mill sits above Pony, Montana/Duncan Adams


If they were not so tired, so sad, so damn disgusted, Jan and David Zimmerman might summon enough spite to say, "We told you so."

The Zimmermans, residents of tiny Pony, Mont., learned late last year that cyanide had contaminated their well water. There was no doubt about the poison's source: A cyanide-process gold mill, now defunct, perches directly above Pony, population 115.

More than five years ago, when the mill opened, the Zimmermans expressed alarm. In job-hungry, pro-mining rural Montana, that earned them threats, no service at the local bar and anti-Zimmerman graffiti spray-painted on the road to town.

Now, their fears confirmed, the Zimmermans find little pleasure in being right. "Who wants to predict their own worst nightmare?" asks Jan.

On Jan. 17, state officials told the Zimmermans - David, Jan, and their two young daughters - to stop drinking their well water. On Feb. 9, the family received its first delivery of bottled water, courtesy of the state of Montana. Sampling has detected cyanide also in a spring supplying water for a neighbor, Josie Jewett.

In 1989, when the Chicago Mining Corp. began construction of the mill, the Zimmermans repeatedly queried state regulators about the wisdom of allowing such a facility on a steep site above town. They say state officials ignored their questions and complaints.

Jan Zimmerman remains especially angry with Steve Pilcher, now administrator of the Montana Water Quality Division, which granted a water-discharge permit for the mill. "His name is on the permit and I really hold him responsible," she says. "From the start, he has been very adept at ignoring our input by categorizing us as emotional and uninformed."

John Arrigo, groundwater program manager for the Water Quality Division, says his agency should not be blamed. "I feel we have no culpability," says Arrigo. "I think the company is to blame for not doing what they should have been doing."

But Terry Webster, an environmental specialist with the division, says he should have taken a harder line with Chicago Mining officials who pledged repeatedly to install the equipment necessary to monitor the mill's tailings impoundment and surrounding groundwater. "We probably should have acted sooner," he says.

Webster also admits the mill's location is far from ideal. "Any site would have been better."

Ironically, the gold mill, which opened in 1990, never really operated beyond a few test runs of its cyanide process. In December 1991, Chicago Mining closed the mill. In December 1993, the Montana Department of Health revoked the mill's water-discharge permit after Chicago Mining went seven straight quarters without conducting required groundwater monitoring. The company appealed, but a hearing examiner upheld the revocation.

In September 1994, however, the Board of Health, which oversees the Department of Health, postponed a final decision on the company's permit. According to Butte's Montana Standard, Chicago Mining had persuaded board members that revocation could jeopardize a pending sale of the property to the Great American Gold Co.

That same month a legislative audit criticized Montana's Water Quality Division for numerous failings. The audit documented examples of the water-quality violations at mines and the division's refusal to act. The audit increased the pressure on the Board of Health to act strongly against Chicago Mining.

Finally, on Nov. 18, 1994, the Board denied the company's request for reinstatement of its water-discharge permit. David Zimmerman was in Helena for that meeting, and afterwards he accompanied Webster to the state lab to examine test results of recent water samples.

The samples had turned purple, indicating the presence of cyanide.

"We were stunned, and so were the lab people and the agency people," recalls Jan. A few weeks later, the state notified the Zimmermans that a sampling of their well water demonstrated low levels of cyanide. A subsequent sample, collected Jan. 5, detected a cyanide concentration of .173 mg/l. The EPA maintains that .20 mg/l constitutes a threat to human health.

Cyanide had leaked into groundwater from the mill's tailings impoundment, which is lined with two layers of plastic and designed with a "sump" space between to collect leakage from the first liner. Although the sump must be pumped regularly to decrease pressure against the second liner, no such pumping had occurred for more than two years. The sump contained approximately 25,000 gallons of liquid.

Although state officials remain unclear about when the transaction occurred, Chicago Mining sold its mill to Great American Gold, based in Dublin, Calif. Montana's Water Quality Department has notified the new owner it must submit a detailed plan for initiating "corrective actions' at the site. As always, the Zimmermans will watchdog the process.

"We'd like to get the situation resolved, get this thing cleaned up, and get on with our lives," says David. Because of these recent developments, the Zimmermans' "boycott gold" campaign (HCN, 3/7/94) has taken a back seat to cyanide.

Meanwhile, the Zimmermans perceive a subtle shift in the behavior of some of their previously hostile neighbors.

"Everybody is waving at me now as I drive by," says Jan.

The writer free-lances from Anaconda, Montana.