Federal money for mine cleanup will continue flowing into Montana. The funds were almost left out of the federal budget because some states, including Montana, were using them to clean up hard rock mines instead of coal mines, for which the funds are allocated.
U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar informed Montana Sen. Jon Tester of a rule change that will allow those coal mine funds to be used in hard rock mine cleanup in a letter dated March 1.
“Reclamation of abandoned hard rock mine sites restores clean water to our communities, improves our landscapes, and puts people to work,” Salazar wrote. “I look forward to continuing to work with you to address the environmental degradation caused by poorly reclaimed and abandoned mine sites.”
Tester took up the cause of restoring the funds last summer. Tester sent a letter to Salazar, who heads up the agency that distributes that money, asking for the policy to be reviewed.
According John Koerth, project manager for abandoned mine cleanup at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the federal government charges mine operators a fee for every ton of coal removed in Montana and across the country. That money in turn goes to abandoned coal mine cleanups. Since 1995, 35 mine sites, both hard rock and coal, have been cleaned, including the Snowshoe Mine in Lincoln County.
“Reclaiming abandoned mines creates good Montana jobs and protects our treasured places,” Tester said in a statement to the Beacon. “Montana’s done its job by cleaning up abandoned coal mines, and now we can take care of our high priority hard rock sites as well.”
Although Koerth is pleased the money will be available this year (including $15,000 to monitor water quality at the Snowshoe Mine), he’s concerned that his department will be faced with the same conundrum again.
“Our budget is 100 percent from this fund and if we lose our federal money for mine cleanup, we’re out of business,” Koerth said. “If we had to rely on state funds, these projects would be much smaller.”
Koerth said cleanup projects can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $20 million, depending on size. Costs continue after that because the Montana DEQ has to monitor the sites. Koerth said he’s concerned about the perception that these federal funds are wasted and not used for what they are intended for. He said in Montana that’s not the case.
Koerth said now that some of the large mine sites have been cleaned, the department will set its sights on smaller projects, including some in Northwest Montana.
“We do have other sites on our radar for cleanup,” he said. “There are certainly mines sites in Lincoln County that could be worked on.”
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