Tons of slag sloughs  into Whitewood Creek

An estimated 700 to 1,000 tons of slag sloughed off into Whitewood Creek Saturday. While water is passing through the slag pile, its presence does dam up the creek. Pioneer photo by Jaci Conrad Pearson

DEADWOOD — A call Saturday from Emergency Management in Pierre alerted Deadwood Public Works Director j.R. Raysor that a substantial portion of a slag pile had sloughed into Whitewood Creek just outside of Deadwood, blocking its flow.

“To a degree, it is blocking the creek across it, roughly a foot,” Raysor said. “But it's the pile itself that is of concern. It's roughly 18 feet deep and 40 feet long. I'd estimate that between 700 and 1,000 tons of material is now laying in the creek.”

Raysor said that when the slag slid, it fractured like broken glass.

Because it is fractured like broken glass, it is allowing Whitewood Creek to wash through it.

Raysor indicated that where the pile fell in, there is another crack two feet to four feet wide that runs back into the slag pile another 80 or so feet.

“That could create another significant problem,” Raysor said.

If the slough would have occurred just 50 feet to the north, the city of Deadwood would not have been discussing the matter at Monday's city commission meeting.

“It's right on the city line, even though it's outside the city proper,” Raysor said. “Although technically it's in the city, the creek belongs to the federal government and is managed by the DENR. The material that fell in there isn't ours either. Because it lies within the city, it is our responsibility to make sure it doesn't jeopardize citizens by flooding in the spring. We're in the process of doing that now.”

On Monday, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources sent two staff members to the area, which is located on the North Side of Highway 14 in Boulder Canyon on a parcel of land right along the stream bank, immediately adjacent to Schade Winery, to collect water samples and shoot photographs.

Kim Smith, an information specialist for the DENR said that those test results will not be back for another week or so. Smith said that reports from staff members indicated that the water was clearer below the slag heap than above it, which was a good indication.

Mike Cepak, engineering manager one for the DENR, pointed out that the slag slew was located well upstream of the Homestake Super Fund site in Whitewood, which is mine tailings.

“According to our most recent water quality reports, there are no problems with Whitewood Creek for metals,” Cepak said. “Every so often chunks of slag are found down Whitewood Valley and there is no negative environmental impact to the creek.”

He explained that the slag pile is more than 100 years old and every so often, there is a slide.

“Over the years, the stream has undercut it (the slag heap), so there are periodic slides,” Cepak said. “This has been going on for the last 100 years. As the stream continues to erode back into it (the slag heap), it creates unstable conditions and the slag will fall off.”

Cepak said that DENR officials don't expect the quality of the water to be affected by the fall, which he described as “pretty much a pile of glass fell into the stream.”

“Because of the nature of the material and because there is a history of that happening in the area, we believe that whatever metals there are to be locked up in the slag's glassy matrix,” Cepak said. “We don't expect the water quality to be compromised.”

Deadwood city officials raised concerns about large-scale spring run-offs and flooding in the area.

“The stream was never blocked,” Cepak said. “The creek has made a small notch through with the channel. The material is rather porous and allows the water to make its way through. The water is passing through, although the pile does dam it up.”

Raysor said that the Water Rights Division is sending a hydrologist to the area to detect high water marks and approximate how huge a run-off, how high the water might back up coming into Deadwood.

“A personal concern of mine is that there be no threat of flooding,” Raysor said.

Clean-up of the area is in question.

Raysor described it as an expensive, extensive clean-up effort that he would estimate to run in the $100,000 range.

“There are several loads of material to be hauled out of there,” Raysor said.

Cepak said that unless water quality tests come back with negatively impacting results, the slag pile won't be cleaned up. It will simply remain in the creek and wash down accordingly.

“We can tell more from the water samples, but at this point, no. There are no plans to clean it up,” Cepak said. “If the city feels that there is a flood hazard, they may decide to dig a channel through it, but that's up to them, I guess. From a water quality standpoint, we're not looking at it being compromised.”

As far as clean-up goes, Deadwood Mayor Francis Toscana said the city has no responsibility to do so.

“I've taken the necessary precautions, asked the DENR to investigate, made sure that no residents or facilities were in jeopardy. Beyond that, we have no responsibility to clean this up. There's nothing here that belongs to us, it just happens to be on city property,” Raysor said.

The slag piles are from the Golden Reward smelter that was located at the lower end of Deadwood at that time.

“For one or two decades, slag was part of the smelting process. They'd melt the rock, recover the gold and pour the slag over the hillside,” Cepak said. “It's a glassy material with a texture mostly like silica.”

City officials made a call to the landowner, Gary Schmaltz, from whose parcel of land the slag sloughed.

“He said that the part that fell off doesn't belong to him,” Raysor said. “That he didn't put it there.”

Schmaltz could not be reached for comment.

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