Dam-fate debate keeps rolling on 

A dam debate

Last week’s meeting on UM campus to promote the removal of Milltown Dam, scooping the toxic sediments settled behind it, and restoring the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork to a semblance of its former splendor, was less a motivational meeting than a practical Q and A on how to get the job done.

“Everyone locally wants to know the same thing,” said the Clark Fork Coalition’s Tracy Stone-Manning. “Is it safe to remove the sediment from behind the dam, and where will those sediments be put after removal?”

Developments on the proposal have continued to hatch on an almost daily basis. The most interesting was indirectly related to President Bush’s decision to roll back allowable levels of arsenic in groundwater. According to a recent investigation published by The Wall Street Journal, ARCO, the petroleum giant currently responsible for footing the bill for cleanup at the Superfund site behind Milltown Dam, hired a Harvard-trained chemical engineer to support the company’s contention that a higher level of allowable arsenic would have no discernable affects on human health. When the researcher found otherwise, the article claims, ARCO dismissed the researcher and buried his findings. Arsenic is one of the metals currently poisoning the groundwater around Milltown and Bonner.

Other signs that the project may be more than a kayaker’s pipedream have come from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. Both agencies have gone on record stating that full removal of the dam and toxic sediments is entirely feasible.

Opposition to the plan remains stiff, however, among locals in Milltown and Bonner. Led by the Bonner Development Group, an ARCO-funded venture, many residents are loathe to remove the dam. They point out that the dam and the electricity it generates provide a tax-base for local schools that may not be easily replaced. Whether or not ARCO and a band of vocal citizens in support of the status quo can hold their ground against their more populous neighbors just downstream will add some human drama to the wonkish environmental policy side of the debate.

Right now the upper-hand goes to the Clark Fork Coalition for distributing the first bumper stickers of the campaign. “We got those in only about ten days ago,” said Stone-Manning. “It’s good to see them around town already.”

Judging from the number of yellow-and-blue “Remove the Dam Restore the River” missives seen pasted on Missoula vehicles in the past few days, the slogan may have a shot at surpassing the last local enviro-bumper sticker hit of years past: “The Blackfoot is more precious than gold.”

A final feasibility study of the project is due out in July.

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