Black Butte Mine aquifer tests move ahead
Bozeman Daily Chronicle | Laura Lundquist
August 7, 2014
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The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has given Tintina Resources the go-ahead to dig four new deep wells to test the aquifer near the proposed Black Butte Copper Mine but has added one safety requirement for the project.
Tintina will be drilling to depths of between 200 and 400 feet through mineral deposits that could cause chemicals in the upwelling water to exceed safety limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In particular, samples from other wells have exceeded EPA limits for arsenic.
The original plan proposed storing the contaminated water in lined storage ponds and then pumping it to sprinklers. The quantity was originally estimated at 1 million gallons but now Tintina estimates a lesser quantity of 650,000 gallons.
But after receiving almost 940 comments, many critical of the proposal, DEQ has changed the project to require Tintina to store the water in storage tanks rather than lined ponds.
Although disappointed that the project was approved, Derf Johnson of the Montana Environmental Information Center said the storage tanks were a step forward.
“Lined ponds always leak. Storage tanks will at least prevent a spill in case of a rain event,” Johnson said.
Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director Bruce Farling also praised the storage tank requirement.
However, the biggest problem MEIC and other opponents had with the project was the plan for the water after it is stored and that hasn't changed, Johnson said.
The plan is to use sprinklers to spray limited amounts of arsenic-contaminated water on a 12-acre area — originally planned for 40 acres — where it is predicted to evaporate in a process known as land-application disposal.
The aquifer pump test is supposed to last 30 days and the land-application disposal works best when plants are still green and releasing oxygen.
The water is supposed to evaporate before it reaches the groundwater and no contamination will result.
Tintina maintains that the cumulative amount of arsenic ending up on the ground will be well below the allowable EPA standard.
“Tintina is convinced that our LAD design is sound, and the state, by permitting this pumping test, is apparently confident that no infiltration or discharge to groundwater or surface water will occur,” said Tintina board chairman Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse. “Tintina is wholeheartedly committed to working with the DEQ and surrounding communities to ensure development of the best mine possible.”
But many commenters pointed out that land-application disposal has never worked in Montana and some groundwater contamination has always occurred. They encouraged DEQ to require Tintina to treat the water.
“It's unfortunate that the company has been given the green light to spray arsenic on the landscape within the Smith River watershed when there is proven technology to treat it,” said Bonnie Gestring, spokeswoman for Earthworks.
In its response to Farling's comments, the DEQ said the land-application disposal would be more modern and thus better than the troubled operations at the Kendall and Zortman mines.
But Farling said the land-application disposal at those mines was necessitated by emergencies brought on because DEQ managers made poor predictions in the first place and then didn't monitor the projects.
“Therefore, the agency reinforces one of our primary points: Its predictive capabilities are sometimes pretty suspect. So when the agency says don’t worry, it is reasonable for the public to not feel particularly comforted,” Farling said.
DEQ spokeswoman Lisa Peterson said DEQ will recalculate Tintina’s bond to ensure reclamation of land affected by the proposed aquifer test. The bond should cover reseeding, removal of the storage tanks and plugging the wells.
Tintina spokeswoman Nancy Schlepp said Tintina will start “right away” to take advantage of plant respiration before fall and winter set in.
Schlepp said acquiring storage tanks won't postpone the project.