Routine blast unleashes torrent in mine – Helena Independent Record, May 15, 2012

May 16, 2012

Categories: Clean Water, Fossil Fuels, Hardrock Mining, Landowner Rights, News, Northern Plains Resource Council


The Drumlummon gold mine near Marysville abruptly shut down operations late Sunday afternoon after a routine blasting operation released close to a million gallons of water that had been encapsulated underground in some historic workings.

All but one of the dozen miners working their shift were on the surface — which is a normal safety precaution — when the blast occurred, according to RX Gold and Silver Chief Operating Officer Bob Taylor. He said the one miner who still was underground was on a piece of machinery and on his way out when he saw the water. It blocked his initial route out, so he turned around and used a second exit.

It was a tense 15 to 30 minutes for the mine employees and officials until the man was located, noted Darrell James, the RX spokesman.

“He was out of the blasting area and in the clear zone before the blast, but the issue there was he didn’t come out within 15 minutes. We called MSHA (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) at that point, and he emerged out of another emergency exit within 15 minutes to half an hour,” James said.

Taylor estimates that up to a million gallons of water was released by the blast, and it settled into a low point in the Gunsinger Decline, a new external portal created as a second, larger route into the mine. Mine officials rented a 2,000-gallon-per-minute pump from a Helena business, and they sent the water into a mine shaft where it was mixed with other water that’s being treated to remove arsenic and antimony before being discharged into the ground near Silver Creek.

“There weren’t any emergency discharges anywhere,” Taylor said. “It was no big deal, just more of an annoyance that stopped normal operations.”

RX initially installed the water treatment system a few years as part of the effort to dewater the Drumlummon in order to reach the historic lower sections and remove ore they believe was left behind by earlier miners, as well as to explore for gold and silver elsewhere.

Taylor said they had pumped down to about the 700-foot level, and the unexpected discharge pooled at about the 500-foot level in the Gunsinger Decline.

“The ramp goes down, then comes back up like a roller coaster, so it filled in at the low spot,” Taylor said.

James said that mixing the old and the newly discharged water should dilute any other trace elements that might not have been found in the water they already were treating. He expects test results from the newly discharged water in a few days.

Earl Fred, a member of the Marysville Area Citizens Committee, said he’s concerned the water might include mercury, which was used to process ore from the mine in the past. Clayton Elliott, a Helena-based field organizer for the Northern Plains Resource Council, added that they’re concerned that the treatment system RX is using at Drumlummon may not remove some of the contaminants.

While no one is sure what was in the water that was unexpectedly encountered, mercury historically used in the greater Marysville area has contaminated Silver Creek to the point that anglers are warned not to eat fish from the stream.

Elliott and Fred both noted that DEQ is going through the permitting process with Drumlummon, and they want to be sure the state agency has plans in place to monitor future incidents like this one.

“We’re writing a letter to DEQ, and want more information on what the agency is doing,” Elliott said.

As far as the mercury is concerned, James pointed out that it historically was part of the milling process that took place farther downstream.

While mining exploration was shut down Sunday and Monday, crews re-entered the mine Monday to clean up the mess the unexpected flows created and check equipment.

“As you can imagine, lots of mud and gunk came out,” Taylor said.

Taylor and James said they expected normal mine operations to resume by the Tuesday night shift.

Early miners left a spider web of shafts and stopes underground, and not all of them were documented. Taylor said they have pretty good maps of the historic workings, but didn’t expect this one where they were exploring.

“We have some reasonably good maps and knew this sub-level existed, but didn’t expect it; we were a little surprised,” Taylor said. “This was one of those workings that shouldn’t have been over as far as we are working.”

Mary Ann Dunwell, a spokesperson for DEQ, said since there didn’t appear to be any discharges of untreated water to the surface, their employees didn’t test for any changes to water quality or quantity in Silver Creek.

Kathy Moore with the Lewis and Clark County Health Department said she was pleased with the company’s apparent openness about the incident, but wishes that they would have been more proactive in notifying local officials and the public instead of waiting for inquiries.

“We want them to partner with us so we can keep people informed,” Moore said. “The biggest complaint I’ve heard from people in Marysville and Canyon Creek is they don’t know what’s going on and that’s when your mind starts wandering.

“We hope they’ll tell us about things like this, which might cause an increase in water in the creek or perhaps the dewatering of another surface well. It would be helpful to have a heads-up.”

James said they understand the county’s concerns, but they first had to focus on the safety of the miners, then the mine safety, and MSHA, which oversees their operations.

Fred, who is one of four residents in the nearby town of Marysville whose residential well went dry — quite possibly from the Drumlummon’s dewatering — said he’s also concerned about impacts from wells from another million gallons of water now being discharged from the aquifer.

“That’s a lot of water coming in there, and I wonder where it’s coming from,” Fred said.


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