TROY — The three-year long remediation effort at the Troy Mine tailings impoundment site is coming to a close and officials with Hecla Mining Company believe they’ll be able to wrap up most of their work at the 303-acre site this year.
After that, the Idaho-based mining company will turn its attention toward the 30-acre mine site where hundreds of miners harvested copper and silver beneath the Cabinet Mountains.
The Troy Mine permanently closed in 2015, not long after Hecla purchased the previous owner, Revett Mining Company. Troy had operated off and on since the 1980s under a number of different owners. However, by the 2000s, much of the easily accessible copper and silver ore had been mined and Hecla officials said it did not make economic sense to keep the facility open.
Shortly after Hecla announced it was purchasing Revett and permanently shuttering the Troy Mine, it began to work with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on a remediation plan. The largest footprint from the mine is the tailings impoundment site located a few miles north of the mine portal and processing plant. Tailings are a sand-like byproduct of the mining process. Over the 30 years that the Troy Mine was in existence, tailings were spread out over a 303-acre site. The reclamation effort includes covering those tailings with topsoil and grass and planting trees. The effort began in 2017, when about half of the site was covered with topsoil and native grass seedlings.
The seeds were locally sourced and Hecla worked closely with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ greenhouse in Ronan to grow native plants for installation on the site. This year, Hecla covered the remainder of the site with topsoil and Doug Stiles, general manager for Hecla’s operations in Montana, said contractors would spend the rest of the summer planting seeds and working on other projects onsite.
“Our goal is to get this work buttoned up by the end of this construction season,” he said.
Already, grass and small trees are starting to poke up through the dirt and Stiles said eventually the former tailings impoundment will look like the surrounding area. The biggest challenge in the next few years will be taking care of weeds that choke the native grasses of much needed nutrients. Nick Raines, environmental coordinator for Hecla, said that once the reclamation work at the tailings impoundment site is done the company will have planted more than 200,000 plant seedlings.
The tailings impoundment site also features a decamp pond that holds water pumped from the mine. The water is naturally filtered through the ground and officials said it would not have any negative environmental impacts.
Hecla contractors have had to be careful while working in the impoundment area because a number of ponds on the edge of the site have become popular with western toads. The toads breed in the ponds and then migrate to a nearby creek (Hecla employees have started calling the area the “toad highway”). Hecla set up cloth fencing to keep them contained, but last year the fence broke.
“The toads made a run for it,” Stiles said, adding that all work had to stop while contractors carefully caught the toads and returned them to safety.
Hecla is working with the Montana DEQ and U.S. Forest Service on what the reclamation of the actual mine site will look like. A pump system that removes water from the mine will eventually be replaced with a gravity-fed system. The former administrative building and maintenance shop will be torn down and the mine portal will be blocked off. Eventually, the 30-acre mine site will just have a dirt path through the woods.
Mining officials have long said the Troy Mine is similar to two other proposed mines — Rock Creek near Noxon and Montanore near Libby. Hecla has acquired both of those projects and is currently in the process of gathering all of the necessary federal permits. In late June, the Forest Service issued a draft supplemental environmental impact statement for Montanore and Raines said Hecla expects a final environmental impact statement and record of decision in 2020. The Forest Service issued a record of decision for Rock Creek in 2018.
However, both proposed mine projects are tied up in a number of lawsuits, most notably one from the state of Montana that accuses Hecla President and CEO Phillips S. Baker of being a “bad actor” for his role in a failed cleanup at a gold mine in central Montana in the 1990s. Such a designation would bar Baker, and in effect Hecla, from mining in Montana. Baker and the company have protested the designation.
Luke Russell, spokesperson for Hecla, said the lawsuits are “frustrating” but that they will not deter the company from pursuing the projects further. Russell said Hecla could employ up to 40 people each at Rock Creek and Montanore during the evaluation phase of the mines, which could take three to five years. After that, Hecla would determine whether or not it would develop the mines.