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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
The samples had turned purple,
indicating the presence of cyanide.
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.
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
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
"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
Meanwhile, the Zimmermans perceive a
subtle shift in the behavior of some of their previously hostile
"Everybody is waving at me now as I
drive by," says Jan.
free-lances from Anaconda,