June Yellowstone flood could have been worse if not for mining cleanup

It may be hard to comprehend, but the historic flooding in June that wiped out roads, bridges and buildings in Yellowstone National Park, prompting its temporary closure, could have been even worse.

Floodwaters swept down Soda Butte Creek from tributaries in the Beartooth Mountains, gouging out boulders, trees and soil in a gushing torrent. Entering the park near the Northeast Entrance, the creek is one of the main arteries of the Lamar River, which joins the Yellowstone River roughly 11 miles downstream.

Had it not been for past reclamation work at historic mine and mill sites in the Cooke City area, the flood waters could have swept tons of heavy metals and acidic mine waters into the Lamar and Yellowstone rivers. That did occur, on a small scale, in June 1950 when the old McLaren Mill Site’s tailings dam was partially breached in a series of rainstorms and floods.

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“What that tailings pond would have been like in 1950 was just a big soggy, solid jelly-like mass of fine-grained mine waste, and when the dam failed that stuff would have poured out of there in a really concentrated form,”

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