Gold Mining Pollution Plagues Western South Dakota Waterways

Dakota Digest - 05/09/2011

New research shows significant levels of pollution along the banks of the Belle Fourche and Cheyenne Rivers in Western South Dakota. The pollution stems from more than a century of gold mining in the Black Hills. The tailings washed down stream left high levels of arsenic in some of the river sediment. In some areas the arsenic concentrations are one-hundred times greater than normal background levels, researchers say that's high enough to potentally pose a risk to human health.   

SDPB's Charles Michael Ray speaks with scientists studying the issue and with a tribal official who wants to see the mess cleaned up.

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I'm standing on the bank of Whitewood Creek at about the place where the creek flows out of the hills and onto the prairie. Up stream from this point sits the Homestake Mine. Over the century or so of gold mining in the Northern Hills about 100-million tons of mine tailings went down this very stream.   In the 1980's those tailings were found to contain arsenic, mercury and other pollutants and Whitewood Creek became an EPA Superfund Site.  That clean up project ended in the mid 1990's. But now new research is showing that a large amount of that pollution didn't get removed.  Today you can still see evidence of mine pollution, but you don't have to step outside to a place like Whitewood Creek, you can check it out in the movies. 

Just turn on Dances With Wolves.  The movie is acclaimed for captaining the untouched beauty of South Dakota's prairie,  but it turns out that the landscapes in this film aren't so pristine. When John Stamm watches Dances With Wolves he sees mine tailings.      

"When we were all working on this these last couple of summers people would come over to my house and we'd sit there and watch and look for tailings in the banks so it's interesting to see that movie and look at and say look at mine tailings right there," says Stamm.

Stamm is a scientist with the United States Geological Survey.  He took part in the field work on this study alongside officials with the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Army Corps of Engineers.   The research is mapping out arsenic laced sediment that lines hundreds of miles of western South Dakota waterways.  The polluted sediment from Black Hills gold mining runs along Whitewood Creek, down into the Belle Fourche and Cheyenne rivers and all the way out to Lake Oahe on the Missouri.  The levels of arsenic in the soil are so high in some places that scientists needed to take safety precautions to avoid overexposure in the field.  Normal background levels of arsenic in the soil are around 30 to 50 parts per million but when researchers dug down into the banks the levels spiked. 

"We're getting really numbers of 350 to 500 at the top maybe about a half a meter then below that a couple of meters where it gets up several thousand two - three - four thousand is pretty typical on the Belle Fourche," says Stam. 

"There is a risk down there, and we've always alleged it, I've always alleged it, the tribe has always alleged it we've just never had the data to back it up - and I think now we do,"  says Carlyle Ducheneaux is a Water Quality Specialist  with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. 

Ducheneaux sees this research as a smoking gun.  The contamination effects tribal lands along the Cheyenne River.  Ducheneaux points to small reservation towns like Cherry Creek and  Bridger--two communities that use the Cheyenne River for recreation every summer. 

"I always give the scenario, what's the first thing a little baby will do, because you take your family down there,  the first thing a child does is take some and put it in their mouth.  And you know with those arsenic values that could certainly do some heavy damage to a little body like that and what we did see is these tailings are exposed - they are right there where people are recreating," says Ducheneaux. 

But, before any clean-up can begin,  Ducheneaux says a study on the human health risks from this pollution needs to be done. He's frustrated that a study of this type has been put off this long.  But federal agencies say they are listening.  Stan Christensen is with the EPA in Denver. He says the EPA is working with tribe to schedule environmental testing for a human health risk assessment this fall.  

"One of the requirements for us to do anything in terms of a cleanup or anything is to do a risk assessment and that would be the basis for any cleanup that would potentially be done," says Christensen. 

But clean up is easier said than done. Potentially it involves digging up and removing contaminated sediments along hundreds of miles of remote creeks and rivers--a daunting task at best.  But there may be a silver lining here, or rather a gold lining, those studying this problem point out that these contaminated sediments come from historic gold mining and there is still a fair bit of gold left over in the tailings.  With precious metal prices at record levels it might be beneficial to remove the old mine tailings and haul them away for gold processing.  Those like Carlyle Ducheneaux don't care how this problem is cleaned up, they just want it done.

"We've always argued at least the tribal perspective is that there is human health risk and will be until we get this cleaned up or something is done with it, take it out of the system," says Ducheneaux.

If it's determined that cleanup is warranted here, it's not all that likely it will happen anytime soon.   First the necessary scientific studies have to be completed.  Then the issue of who is liable for the clean up, and who has the right to benefit from any left over gold in the tailings must be determined.   These are questions that could potentially take some time to work out.   

(Fade up water)

In the meantime, those residents who live on these contaminated waterways, can only watch as the arsenic laced sediment creeps downstream from the Black Hills out to Lake Oahe.






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