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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz