The town of Superior sits in a deep valley along the Clark Fork river. Flat Creek runs north into the mountains and past the abandoned Iron Mountain Mine site. Directly to the west of Superior now sits the burn scar left over by this summer's West Mullan Fire.
In 2000, a wildfire burned the high country at the north end of the Flat Creek watershed. Subsequent rain events rushed down the barren hillsides and carried soil and debris down the creek to Superior and the Clark Fork. In this mixture of water and mud was toxic mine tailings, leftovers from mining that began 100 years ago at the Iron Mountain site and continued off and on into the 1950s.
The tailings were nothing new to Superior residents -- they had used the rock in their backyards and businesses as landscaping filler. Testing only revealed the hazardous nature of the soil in the past 20 years. Dangerous concentrations of heavy metals, Lead, Arsenic, Manganese and Antimony were in the tailings.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got involved in 2001; and in 2009 the entire town and watershed were designated a Superfund site.
The closest burned area from the over-6,000 acre remnant of the West Mullan Fire to Flat Creek is actually manmade. A burnout operation scars the west side of the gorge just north of the edge of town.
Otherwise, a lot of solid green growth is between the main scar at the ridge line and the creek below. This is steep country however, and that more than any burn scar can contribute to rapid water movement and erosion.
Rain events have moved tailings around the creek bed before, and it's likely they will again. The area around the creek is remote, and only a heavy rain event would push tailings down the creek and into town.
The priority for the EPA continues to be the removal of tailings on people's property in town, which will be completed by the end of October. They are being moved from town and a temporary disposal area at the Mineral County Airport to a specially built site at Wood Gulch, about a mile up the creek from town.
The tailings are buried under clean soil and surrounded by culverts, which divert water away from the contaminants.
There is still a lot of work to be done. The EPA must still fully investigate the contamination at the actual mine site, which contains a pit full of toxic water.
In cooperation with the Forest Service and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, work will begin on removing tailings from along Flat Creek after the winter season. However, the current government shutdown and an already small budget may have leave the project in limbo for a while.
For more information from the EPA about the Iron Mountain Mine site, click here.