Correction: The original story indicated that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality could seek ownership of the Montana Tunnels mine through a reclamation bond for the mine, possibly putting the agency in competition with the county for ownership of the mine. After publication, the DEQ clarified that the agency can seize the mine permit but is not seeking ownership of the mine itself. The story has been updated.
Jefferson County could become the next owner of the Montana Tunnels Mine, a large open-pit mine near Corbin, west of Jefferson City, and the state Department of Environmental Quality may take over the mine's permit.
According to County Commission Chairman Leonard Wortman, the commission is considering seeking a tax deed on the mine, which produced gold, silver, zinc and lead, but hasn't operated since 2008 and owes the county about $7.7 million in unpaid taxes.
"They owe us seven-million bucks in back taxes," Wortman said in an interview in June. "If we had the property, we think we could sell it. We would be able to take the deed in August, I believe, if we chose to."
He said the commission was consulting an outside attorney to confirm that "we are covered under some coal mining legislation where, if we take the tax deed, we wouldn’t be liable [for contamination]."
But a tax deed wouldn't make Jefferson County its own newest mining operation.
"If we took a tax deed on the mine, we’d have a hole in the ground but no permit to mine it," Wortman said. However, he said, a state law passed in 2018 would allow the DEQ to take the permit and hold it for up to five years while the county and DEQ work to find a buyer for the mine who could assume the permit.
But the DEQ might end up with the permit anyway. According to a July 8 DEQ press release, the department issued a violation letter to the mine for failing to post an adequate reclamation bond.
The mine has already posted $19.7 million in reclamation bond, which is $16.8 million short of the $36.5 million total that the department needs to hold for the mine to be allowed to operate, the release stated. The DEQ suspended the mine's permit in 2018, and the mine's owners have until Friday to take corrective action.
According to The Montana Standard, mine owner Patrick Imeson said that he would secure financing for the bond and for resumption and expansion of mining activity at the site—a claim The Standard said he has made before without following through.
"DEQ staff have met with the mine operator and communicated regularly. Unfortunately, these efforts have not resulted in a fully bonded or reclaimed site," DEQ Director Chris Dorrington said in the release.
Corrective action, according to the release, "may include reclamation, posting of the full bond by Montana Tunnels, or transfer of the permit to a fully bonded operator." If no action is taken, the release stated, the department will "assess all the facts surrounding the violation" before deciding its next step. The department could take up to five years to find another entity to post the full reclamation bond and take over the mine, or it could reclaim the site with the portion of the bond that has been posted.
"Under Montana’s Metal Mine Reclamation Act, DEQ has the discretion, based on certain factors, to conclude whether a site is considered abandoned or complete. Once a site is considered abandoned or complete, reclamation of the site is required to occur within two years," the release stated, adding that the current reclamation plan "provides a long-term reclamation strategy for Clancy Creek, which is currently routed past the pit wall through a temporary pipe."
The department said that the mine is not a significant environmental risk. The pit is filling with water, it said, but the water "meets water quality standards."