Forest Service advises caution against heavy metal exposure in Dry Fork area

The U.S. Forest Service is advising visitors to the Dry Fork of the Belt Creek Basin to take precautions to avoid exposure to heavy metals.

The area is a popular spot for camping and recreation in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, but due to the area’s mining history, heavy metals may be present in the water, along the shorelines and within the floodplain, according to a Forest Service release.

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“Lead is one of the many heavy metals that is present in this recreational corridor,” Belt Creek-White Sulphur Springs District Ranger Helen Smith said in a release. “We now have brochures available at our local district office in Neihart to help folks recreate safely in the area, and we will be installing educational kiosks in the area next spring.”

Exposure to lead and other heavy metals can occur through ingestion and inhalation of contaminated soils. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body and often occurs with no obvious symptoms. Health effects from lead and other heavy metals primarily occur through ingestion and inhalation of contaminated soils therefore good hygiene practices should be used to limit exposure. Lead exposure can harm the nervous system, especially in children and pregnant women, according to the Forest Service release.

Here are some tips for minimizing lead/heavy metal exposure, from the Forest Service:

  • Wash hands and face before eating and limit hand to mouth contact.
  • Bring water for drinking, cooking, and washing. Do not use water from the stream—even if it is filtered.
  • Keep yourself and belongings clean. Remove dirt from clothes, toys, pets, and equipment before leaving the area since soil tracked home from recreational areas can become a source of exposure.
  • Wear bandanas or other dust-coverings over the mouth and nose when riding off-road trails
  • Stay on trails and in designated areas
  • Eat on a table or on a blanket in grassy areas to avoid accidently consuming soil and dust
  • Do not harvest edible plants from floodplain areas
  • Limit contact with soil along the streambank
  • Reference Montana Department of Environmental Quality state guidelines for safe fish consumption.

The area is affected by the former 6,000-acre Barker Hughesville Mining District site located south of Great Falls and about 12 miles east of Monarch in Judith Basin and Cascade Counties. Rich silver and lead ores were discovered in the Barker Hughesville area in 1879. Mining activity occurred there until 1893 and again at the beginning of the 20th century through the 1940s, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The site contains about 46 known abandoned mines strewn with waste rock dumps, tailings and water-seeping mine openings. The abandoned mines have contaminated soil, sediment, groundwater and surface water with arsenic and metals such as copper, zinc, cadmium, and lead, according to the EPA.

The area is now an EPA superfund cleanup site.

Call the Belt Creek Ranger District office at 406-236-5100 for more information.