HELENA - The Montana Department of Environmental Quality Abandoned Mine Lands Program won a national award for its work to restore reliable water to the town of Sand Coulee in Cascade County.

DEQ received the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Award from the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. The annual honors recognize work across the nation to reclaim abandoned coal mines and the people impacted by them.

Sand Coulee is surrounded by coal mines circa 1890, supplying fuel for the railroads until about 1910, said Tom Henderson, DEQ project manager. Mining efforts contaminated groundwater with acid mine drainage and metals, but mines also draw clean water from sandstone aquifers, making supply a chronic issue for the community water supply.

“With acidic water you can’t just drill into the valley water, so the community tried the next logical thing and looked above the mines,” he said. “They just never had enough water for the community and struggled with diminishing well yields.”

Residents were forced into reoccurring water restrictions, rationing and hauling from other sources.

Adding an additional concern was the 1950s era piping system. The thin plastic water mains were backfilled with coal waste and often cracked, causing contamination to enter the water supply.

In 2010, DEQ began evaluating potential long-term solutions for Sand Coulee. Analysis found a deeper formation called the Madison aquifer and after public comment, drilled the first 800-foot well in 2012 and began the process of securing the community a water right.

July 2012 brought the realization that Sand Coulee’s existing water tank was nearly empty. Officials scrambled to attach a temporary pump and run the Madison water to alleviate the shortage. The water right was later secured in 2014.

In all, DEQ secured through federal and state grants approximately $2.6 million for Sand Coulee’s water infrastructure. The project included replacement of nearly two miles of problematic waterlines, construction of a new 150,000-gallon water tank, fire hydrants and private service connections. A backup well was also drilled with the funding.

“When the project was completed the town of Sand Coulee received a wonderful state of the art water system from the new wells to a new distribution system with telemetry so we can control the system from our homes,” Sand Coulee Water District President Kent Luoma wrote in a letter of support. “All of this was made possible by the wonderful people from the MT DEQ and the Abandoned Mine project funding.”

If the water users were to fund the work themselves, water bills were estimated to climb by about $100 per month.

Henderson agrees that the project was different than programs typically associated with mining remediation such as removal of contaminated material. It is clear, however, that the issues Sand Coulee faced were directly related to the abandoned coal mines, and due to geology, it is extremely unlikely that the contamination could be stopped, he said.

Future funding may allow the drilling of an intercepting well in an attempt to stop the clean sandstone water from entering the acidic mines, Henderson said.

Montana must compete for the awards against states with much larger remediation budgets, and many other states do high quality work, he said. It is important to let policy makers know that even in 2016, there are still many issues with abandoned coal mines that must be addressed, he added.

“It does come with a defined sense of accomplishment – that we made a very tangible improvement in people’s lives in the community,” Henderson said.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

Outbrain