Thermopolis Independent Record - Your source for news in Hot Springs County

By Cindy Glasson
Reporter Photographer 

Plans for bentonite mine explained


Cast Back Mining System

Members of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) field office in Worland, WyoBen and members of the public attended a meeting last Thursday regarding the bentonite project, which will commence west of Thermopolis.

According to the BLM, they have received just 35 comments to date on WyoBen's draft proposal for extending the mining operations of their 108T pit along Highway 120.

The 10-year project will amount to mining approximately 37.5 acres a year for each of those years in their western, middle and eastern portions.

Holly Elliot, a specialist in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the BLM said the comments have generally said, "no mining," but six comments contained some real concerns, including visual impacts to tourism, safety of trucks entering the highway and the impact on wildlife and sage grouse habitat in the area.

Through NEPA, Elliot said they are required to do internal scoping that include impacts and issues related to wildlife, and in this specific area, sage grouse. Because of the type of mining that will be done, castback mining, the impacts to wildlife will be minimal.

Adam Babcock, Visual Resources Management (VRM) specialist told the group there are four classes of visual impact, from Class I, the most protective, which would include National Parks to Class IV, the least protected, which would include areas like oil fields.

This mining project falls into a Class III where there must be a partial retainer of the existing character of the landscape with a moderate change to the natural characteristics.

Activity at the mine may attract attention with a Class III, but should not dominate the view of the casual observer. Babcock explained the causal observer would be someone driving past the area that doesn't live there or doesn't know about the mining operation. Those who live in the area will, of course, notice it more.

The impact to tourism will be minimal as well. Babcock said a study done in the area showed the pit that will be open nearest the highway will only be visible for a total of 45 seconds at highway speeds.

WyoBen uses a castback mining technique that opens three to five spaces in the mine area, removing the topsoil, underlayment and other debris from over the bentonite seam. The removed soil is stockpiled at one end of the mine and as each space is mined out, the stockpile is returned to the opening, filling it up as the next space is opened up.

The stockpile will be placed in such a way to screen the project from the highway as much as possible. In addition, as the soil is replaced, reclamation will begin immediately with seeding and contouring.

Mining operations in Wyoming also fall under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which require the protection of scientific, scenic, historical and ecological values of the surrounding area.

"Why here?" seemed the most pressing question from the public Thursday evening.

In reality, WyoBen has been mining since the 1960s and this particular area, 108T, has been staked out for mining since the 1970s.

WyoBen has held a mining claim for the area for the past 40 years and a lot of the reasoning behind opening this particular claim now is economics. They already have mining operations going on in the immediate area, so from a business standpoint it makes sense to expand the operation now.

Those living in the area are also concerned about issues with traffic on the mining road and mud that may cause problems on the highway.

Babcock said they pulled information about Highway 120 from the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) for the past 10 years in order to study traffic patterns.

For some reason, traffic has increased on the highway over the past two years, but there is nothing concrete to account for the increase. WyoBen is in contact with WYDOT and the two entities are working toward a plan that will be the safest for everyone involved.

It was asked if WyoBen could just take an alternate route back to their processing plant, however doing so would mean traveling through drainages in the area which would result in a huge environmental impact.

WyoBen won't be hauling bentonite every day, either.

In all, they will be actively hauling just 63 days per year. That will amount to five trucks making seven hauls each for those 63 days.

Of course, there is also the concern about property values decreasing for the surrounding landowners.

WyoBen assured the landowners in attendance at the meeting they are working with their attorneys on a solution, should that happen. However, with the reclamation that will be ongoing throughout the project, there is also the chance their property values may increase.


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