Old mines still plague Montana's Clark Fork

Why one of the nation's largest Superfund river sites can't address pollution from abandoned mines.


Cold, rapid and icy blue, the Clark Fork is Montana’s largest river. It begins its journey as Blacktail Creek, tumbling down from the Continental Divide at Pipestone Pass, near Butte, and threads its way between the Flint Creek, Sapphire and Garnet ranges on its way to Missoula. A century ago, one of North America’s largest copper booms rattled the river’s headwaters in Butte. Several hundred mines burrowed beneath the city, and in 1908, a flood washed tons of contaminated sediments from those mines into the river. Arsenic, copper, zinc, lead and cadmium contaminated millions of tons of sediment along 120 miles of the river’s banks — all the way to Missoula. The river’s legendary but struggling trout all but vanished.

Then, in the 1980s, researchers discovered arsenic in the groundwater of Milltown, a city built along the river about 100 miles west of Butte. This discovery sparked decades of litigation and, ultimately, the nation’s largest watershed restoration project  the $1 billion-plus Upper Clark Fork River Superfund Complex, which is still in progress today.

That’s what drew chemist Heiko Langner to the University of Montana in Missoula in 2002.  The German native had moved to Bozeman several years earlier, as much for its backcountry skiing as for graduate school at Montana State University. He remained to study the Clark Fork of the Columbia: His field was environmental chemistry, and he was intrigued by the effects of contaminants, such as those from Butte’s mines, on natural environments.

In 2006, Langner, who was also a recreational birder, teamed up with biologists to examine how those contaminants might affect birds that prey on fish. They studied ospreys along the banks of the Clark Fork, taking blood samples from chicks to determine whether contaminated fish were hurting them. In 2007, Langner’s blood samples showed that the cleanup effort appeared to be working, at least in regard to arsenic, copper, zinc, lead and cadmium. “Those contaminants everyone was talking about — it turns out that none of those seemed to be affecting the ospreys directly,” he said last year. “What we were finding instead was real high concentrations of mercury,” a neurotoxin that can accumulate in the tissues of fish and other aquatic organisms. At sufficient concentrations, it harms the predators — the ospreys, otters and even human beings — that eat them.

Heiko Langner, a chemist formerly at the University of Montana, found high concentrations of mercury in ospreys on the banks of the Clark Fork River.
Kindra McQuillan

Langner wasn’t surprised by the presence of mercury, which was often used historically in metal mining. Rather, he was surprised by the “odd geographic distribution,” he said. The highest mercury levels were found in chicks nesting farther downstream from Butte’s copper mines, and vice-versa. “We actually double-checked if we had switched some samples or if we made some other mistake.” But the following year, the researchers confirmed that the neurotoxin wasn’t coming from Butte. Over the next five years, Langner’s team traced most of the mercury to a single source — the remains of the Rumsey Mill, an abandoned silver ore-processing facility on a small tributary called Fred Burr Creek.   

Kindra McQuillan

Meanwhile, hundreds of state and federal employees, students, advocates, volunteers and contractors have spent over a decade planning, litigating and working on the upper Clark Fork’s Superfund cleanup. They’ve excavated a third of the soil from the riverbanks and shipped it to repositories upstream near Opportunity, a town of 500. They’ve torn down a dam, re-routed the river, restored wetlands and planted riparian vegetation. There has been a lot of successful restoration, but it has a long way to go.

Extending that work to curb the mercury contamination would be a fairly easy fix, if Langner’s research is correct and it’s mostly all coming from one source. It would cost a fraction of what’s already being spent on the massive cleanup on the very same river system. But here’s the catch: The Superfund project, which is projected to take another several years, legally can’t do anything to address the contaminants from Rumsey or from the hundreds of other abandoned mines upstream. And both federal and state agencies lack the necessary funding to deal with them.

So Langner and others are asking themselves: How can so much energy be put into a cleanup when some of the most dangerous contaminants are being ignored? The answer, as with so many natural resource issues in the West, lies in how the money flows.

Ruby Shaft Mill, an abandoned mine and mill near Granite, Montana.
Mark Hedlund

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program has a relatively small pot of money (primarily from a now-discontinued tax on industry) to reclaim hazardous sites, such as old mines. That’s not enough to pay for much reclamation work, so it’s used for litigation, to force responsible parties to pay for the damage they did. In the Upper Clark Fork Superfund Complex, the Superfund law allowed the EPA and the state of Montana to sue the Atlantic Richfield Company, or ARCO, a multinational mining conglomerate. ARCO bought Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which owned many of Butte’s hundreds of mines (including the famous Berkeley Pit), in the ’70s, and operated for several years before closing them; now, the company is paying to clean them up. Legally, that money can only be used to remediate damages from the ARCO-owned mines in the Clark Fork area. But ARCO never owned Rumsey, or any of the other hundreds of abandoned mines in this watershed. At this point, no one owns them. And without anyone to sue, the EPA is close to helpless.

What’s more, the Superfund work could even exacerbate the problem. “There is a different and complicated (chemistry) with mercury,” Langner said. “(Cleanup) measures that can be great for copper or zinc can be counterproductive with regard to mercury.” As part of the Clark Fork’s restoration work, crews have sculpted a new channel and restored wetlands alongside it. Wetlands by nature are full of bacteria and low in oxygen, and when mercury encounters these conditions, it can easily become methylmercury, a much more toxic form of the chemical. 

The mercury from abandoned mills and mines is also a problem for anglers. “It’s not compatible with blue-ribbon trout fishing,” Langner said. The area’s legendary trout fishing draws tourists, and money, from around the world, but it depends on clean waters.  

Rumsey’s situation is far from unique. Miners flocked to the state by the thousands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in search of gold, silver, coal, gems and other minerals — and later abandoned many of these mines and mills. And more recently, companies have abandoned numerous mines after going bankrupt. Rumsey is just one of hundreds of thousands in the American West.

To locate the Clark Fork, enter "Butte, Montana" in the search box. You can also use the search box to locate mines near any town you choose. Click on the dots to read more about each individual mine site, including what that land is currently being used for and what remediation efforts have been taken. This map includes noncoal abandoned mines in Montana, as identified by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality's Abandoned Mine Lands project. In the legend, "U.S. Government" includes a large number Forest Service owned properties but may also include a federal entity not yet listed. Where a field reads "blank," that indicates no data was present for that record. Some records were too incomplete to map. For more on the AML project or to access the complete database, visit their websiteMap by Kate Schimel. 

Beal Mountain Mine, an abandoned open-pit gold mine, sits on Forest Service land near German Gulch, a stream that feeds into the Clark Fork. “German Gulch has a rare, 100 percent pure strain of westslope cutthroat trout, which is a really important native species in Montana,” said Missoula-based Bonnie Gestring, who works as an advocate for Earthworks, a national nonprofit that helps communities fight the mining industry and deal with its impacts. Gestring grew up in Great Falls in north-central Montana, a region plagued with acid mine drainage from old coal mines. She began studying effects of mining pollution on the Clark Fork’s aquatic animals as a graduate student in the mid-’90s. “Part of the grand Superfund plan is, as the river recovers, that (German Gulch) would be a source of westslope cutthroat to repopulate it,” she said. It’s a fine idea, but the German Gulch trout might not be able to repopulate the whole watershed if the Beal Mountain Mine keeps releasing selenium, a chemical that’s deadly to them. And unfortunately, as is the case with Rumsey, the Superfund money legally cannot go toward cleaning up Beal.

Nationwide, it’s estimated that there are over half a million historic and modern abandoned mines. In 2000, the EPA reported that mining has contaminated the headwaters of more than 40 percent of Western watersheds. According to the agency, reclaiming the mines that aren’t currently being addressed would take $35 billion or more.

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management received about $7 million and $17 million respectively to reclaim abandoned mines on their lands last year. “That isn't remotely sufficient to address the scale of the problem,” Gestring said. The Forest Service estimates that Beal Mountain alone will take about $39 million — pretty much dwarfing the agency’s  annual budget for abandoned mines. And, of course, that federal money doesn't touch the hundreds of thousands of sites on private and state lands — including Rumsey, which sits on private property.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) can be used to try to clean up abandoned coal mines on private and state lands (as well as federal land)— but only in states where there is active coal mining. Under SMCRA, the federal government charges companies a tax on operating coal mines (between about 15 and 30 cents per ton of mined coal, depending on how it was mined). A percentage of those royalties goes back to the states where the mining occurs, to reclaim abandoned coal mines (and in rare cases, other mines, too). Montana is one of relatively few states that have active coal mining, and one of still fewer allowed to use SMCRA royalties on non-coal mine reclamation. The state gets between $3 and 4 million in SMCRA royalties per year to deal with thousands of sites — not nearly enough to help its lands recover from over a century of mining. “There's certainly more environmental problems associated with abandoned mine lands than there will ever be funding to take care of,” said Tom Henderson, manager of the Abandoned Mines Section of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency that puts the SMCRA royalties to use.

Gestring says the solution is simple: “If there was a federal royalty for the metal-mining industry, there could be a consistent source of revenue to fund” abandoned non-coal mine reclamation. Unlike oil, gas and coal, the metal (or hard-rock) mining industry does not have to pay royalties to the federal government. This is due to the 1872 Mining Law, which has not been updated since it was first passed in an attempt to encourage the settlement of the West.

Sediment removal in the remediation efforts for the Clark Fork Superfund Site near Milltown Dam in 2008.
M Kustudia/Wikimedia

In the last few decades, there have been a handful of congressional efforts to update the law. The most recent is H.R. 963: the Hard Rock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015, a bill introduced by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., in February. This would levy an 8 percent royalty on new hard-rock mines and a 4 percent royalty on existing ones, charge reclamation fees, and use both of these sources to reclaim abandoned hard rock-mines — much as the SMCRA program does with coal mines. The bill is still in committee. 

However complicated the legal and political mechanisms that keep abandoned mines abandoned and leaching, communities themselves have equally complex forces at work. During his research, Langner recruited volunteers to help gather sediment samples from stream banks abutting private land. In 2013, one of his volunteers trespassed on private property to conduct the research, and Langner's response to the situation ruffled feathers in the community.

Locals have known about Rumsey Mill’s mercury problem for decades, though many are hesitant to speak publicly about it. But the Granite Headwaters Watershed Group has been gathering research on the mercury issue for several years. (Several members declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.) Headwaters has emphasized a local approach, holding monthly meetings and producing a newsletter to encourage community interest. The group is working independently from Langner, who now lives abroad. 

Downstream, the main stem of the upper Clark Fork is beginning to look like the wild, beautiful river it once was. Cottonwoods along the river’s newly restored floodplains are leafing out, and trout have made a comeback. As Gestring said, the ideal cleanup would be comprehensive, but overall, the Clark Fork project is looking like a success story. “There are a lot of people working on it, and a lot of thought going into it,” she said. “It’s one of those iconic rivers. It’s beloved.”


Kindra McQuillan is a former editorial intern with High Country News.