Comments on Barrett Minerals Mining Permit

Today Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, Inc., Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and Montana River Action submitted this Barrett Minerals Permit Renewal Comment Letter to the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality concerning a permit application. The Treasure Mine, located about 20 miles northeast of Dillon Montana, is a long-standing open-pit talc mine. Our concerns with this permit are two-fold.

First, from a technical view, this permit expired in 2011 and was “administratively continued.” The problem here is that federal and state law explicitly requires facilities that discharge pollution – like the Treasure Mine – to receive  new permits every five years, not be “administratively continued,” a mechanism intended to be used sparingly and in non-significant circumstances. The “every 5-years” permit application process ensures that new science and monitoring data concerning site-specific water quality and a facilities’ compliance with water quality standards are routinely updated and enforced, respectively. Think of it as an accountability mechanism. Unfortunately, the State of Montana has failed to fulfill this basic obligation more often than not and, in lieu of performing in-depth permit application renewals, has been administratively continuing permits. This means Montana citizens haven’t had a chance to offer comments on pollution from the Treasure Mine, or impacts on local water quality, for over 2 years although federal and state law says otherwise.

Second, the Treasure Mine discharges hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of sediment, nitrogen and nitrogen derivates into local waters. This huge loading of sediment and nitrogen comes from mining itself and the fact that the facility uses ammonium nitrate as a blasting agent. Too much sediment clouds the water and can suffocate aquatic life. Likewise, although nitrogen is natural substance, as the saying goes you can have too much of a good thing. Too much nitrogen or nitrogen derivates in water creates eutrophication and excessive algal blooms which can kill aquatic life ranging from your favorite stone fly to a big trout. At high levels, algal blooms make water poisonous for even agricultural use like irrigation or cattle watering! Allowing large amounts of sediment and nitrogen from the Treasure Mine is especially problematic because the receiving waterway – Left Fork Stone Creek – and its downstream relatives Stone Creek and the Beaverhead River – already suffer from too much sediment and nitrogen in the water. Even though Montana DEQ was aware of excess sediment and nitrogen loading they still failed to perform the requisite cumulative analyses that would inevitably show that new, more stringent standards for the discharge of sediment and nitrogen et al. are required to make downstream water quality healthy again.

These two problems – our government failing to perform timely environmental reviews and failing to adequately protect water quality – are becoming increasingly common in Montana. These are some of the reasons Upper Missouri Waterkeeper exists – to make sure that our government does its job and protect families’ and communities’ right to clean water and a healthful environment.