Mine Cleanup Efforts Threatened

By Beacon Staff

President Barack Obama’s proposed federal budget for 2012 could end funding for abandoned mine cleanup across state, which doesn’t sit well with Montana Sen. Jon Tester.

“There are still many critically important clean up projects in Montana,” Tester wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior and released to the media last week. “The result is damaging to both the environment and our state’s economy. I urge you to swiftly reverse these policies to put people back to work in Montana.”

According to John Koerth, project manager for abandoned mine cleanup at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, there are thousands of coal and hard rock mine sites across the state that need to be cleaned. Those that pose the largest threat to public safety were listed in 1995 and since then 35 sites have been cleaned up, including the Snowshoe Mine in Lincoln County.

Koerth said the federal government charges mine operations a fee for every ton of coal mined in Montana and across the country. Money from the fee goes toward abandoned coal mine cleanup projects, administered by state environmental agencies. Because Montana has used this money to clean up both coal mines and hard rock mines the federal government is proposing to end the funding.

“If the administration’s proposal is passed this work will stop,” Koerth said. “We really need this federal money.”

According to the Department of the Interior, if the federal budget proposal is passed by Congress it would save an estimated $138 million in 2012 and $1.3 billion over the next decade. Koerth said that Texas, Wyoming and the Crow Nation in eastern Montana also face the same cuts.

If the money for these projects does disappear, all future cleanup work would be halted, including at the King Mine in Lincoln County, between Libby and Trout Creek.

Koerth said the cleanup efforts are important because they help both Montana’s environment and economy.

“I think it’s valuable work,” he said. “We clean up the environment and we create jobs.”

One of the companies that has benefited from this work is Noble Excavating in Libby. In 2008 it was called upon as a subcontractor to remove and cover contaminated soils at the Snowshoe Mine. The company employed 14 to 16 people to work on the project from 2008 until its completion in 2010, according to owner Chris Noble.

“Any kind of work in Montana in the construction industry is appreciated,” Noble said. “That’s what brings jobs to Northwest Montana … That’s how we make our living.”

Noble said the Snowshoe Mine cleanup was one of their biggest projects in recent years and more like that could benefit industry across the state.

Koerth agreed and hoped the federal money has funded these projects would continue. If not the cleanup would be over.

“We’d finish up the projects we have now and roll up the carpet,” he said.

In a statement issued to the Flathead Beacon, the U.S. Department of the Interior said that it was reviewing Tester’s letter.

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