Section 35 

The government thinks it's found the best spot to bury toxic tailings that loom above the Blackfoot River. Suspicious neighbors say the logic doesn't hold water.

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Beyond that, the Paymaster site presents geotechnical problems. Among them, soils here naturally contain high levels of metals, so they can't truck "borrow material" from Paymaster to the headwaters—as would be the plan—to rebuild the floodplain. Plus, the seismic safety factor here barely meets minimum requirements.

"We're living in a fault zone," Haalands says. "What happens when you have a 50- to 80-foot berm and the quake comes? What happens then? You open up a fissure and that stuff gets re-saturated...The thing that will be most protective in the long run is where you want to be."

(It's been over four decades since the last destructive earthquake in Montana, but small quakes are common; on Thursday, March 17, a 1.0-magnitude quake struck about 30 miles north of Lincoln. The Continental Divide here runs along the Intermountain Seismic Belt.)

Paymaster is one among several sites the Forest Service and DEQ have explored since 2007. Haaland and Ihle describe a few others that have been considered, but each has its own drawbacks.

click to enlarge Beth Ihle, a geologist with the Helena National Forest, stands above the Mike Horse Dam. “You don’t want to do it twice, I tell you what,” Ihle says of the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex restoration. “This is our one shot in history.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Beth Ihle, a geologist with the Helena National Forest, stands above the Mike Horse Dam. “You don’t want to do it twice, I tell you what,” Ihle says of the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex restoration. “This is our one shot in history.”

First Gulch, on the north side of Highway 200 about four miles from the road to the Mike Horse Dam, looked promising, but design estimates showed that multiple repositories would be needed, and those locations are all on steep slopes above tributaries to the Blackfoot. And, as Haaland says, "it just doesn't have much for dirt [for rebuilding the headwaters' floodplain]."

"So you're looking at needing yet another place to get borrow material and you're branching out more and more," she says. "Each time you branch out to another site, you have more cost, and you have more environmental impact."

The Horsefly Creek area's topography and soil types made it a candidate for the repository, but its problem is access. Trucks could reach it via dirt road, which adds a few miles, or they could go onto private property and build a bridge over the Blackfoot. Neither option pencils out.

"Horsefly Creek is a hell of a haul, is what it ends up being," Haaland says.

And there are a few other options, too, like Shave Gulch, but they've effectively been nixed.

Like real estate agents showing properties to new homebuyers, Haaland and Ihle save the best for last—a 365-acre piece of ground off Highway 279 known as "Section 35." It popped up on their radar early last year, and it now stands out as the preferred location for laying to rest the Mike Horse tailings. It wasn't initially considered, they explain, because they didn't zoom their GIS mapping system in close enough to reveal the land's benched topography, an appealing feature for landfilling. It also contains low-permeability soils with low metals content. The depth to groundwater ranges from about five to 80 feet. One test well didn't reach groundwater at all.

Haaland and Ihle pull over onto the shoulder and look northeast of the highway, past willows and the foot-wide Nora Creek, completely hidden under snow, to a series of benches dotted with trees. Says Haaland: "It has a lot of potential to be able to encapsulate that material and keep it separated from surface water, ground water; be able to keep it away from those things, not just under normal circumstances, but in catastrophic circumstances.

"There's enough distance and space," she adds, "that even in the absolute worst case scenario—the absolute worst, which is you have a quake, it opens that thing up and then you have a massive rain event—it's still not going to get it to the surface water."

Ihle says the site also offers a good visual buffer for area residents, since the benches rise hundreds of yards from the road.

Not everyone's as enthusiastic, and that partly has to do with the landowner: Stimson Lumber Company. Stimson owes the state $300,000 for cleanup work at its Bonner mill, at the other end of the Blackfoot River, and, conveniently, it's offered to give the state Section 35 to use as a repository in lieu of payment. But the land wouldn't necessarily cost just $300,000. Just down the road is the Sieben Ranch, owned by John Baucus, brother of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. The family holds Section 35's development rights, as well as some of its mineral rights. The DEQ is currently in negotiations with John Baucus to buy out the ranch's claims.

Critics contend that the DEQ arbitrarily favors Section 35, and they express misgivings about the Baucuses standing to profit. But more than that, a handful of neighbors say they've been kept in the dark about the potential for one million yards of toxic tailings to be dumped in their backyards.

•••

Tucked among 140 wooded acres along Highway 279 stands Mike Grimes' home. Inside, the 66-year-old sits at the kitchen table, beneath a mount of a bull elk he shot on the ridge outside his backdoor, and rolls out maps and shuffles through papers as he tries to show that the DEQ and Forest Service have bungled the repository selection process.

Grimes' biggest beef is that the agencies haven't been more forthcoming about their consideration of Section 35, located across the road from his property. And he argues that when they do finally seek public comment next month, their minds will already be made up.

click to enlarge Thirty-six years after the blowout of the Mike Horse Dam, the headwaters of the Blackfoot River have yet to recover. “You can sample fish in the Blackfoot that still have high levels of cadmium in them,” says Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Thirty-six years after the blowout of the Mike Horse Dam, the headwaters of the Blackfoot River have yet to recover. “You can sample fish in the Blackfoot that still have high levels of cadmium in them,” says Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited.

"What good does that do?" he asks about irrelevant public comments. "Are you going to go up there and tell them how to build [the repository]?"

The DEQ and the Forest Service insist they've diligently involved the public. They've given monthly project updates to the Lincoln Community Council, and taken local residents and organizations like the Blackfoot Challenge on field trips to Section 35 to demonstrate its relative appeal.

But, as Grimes points out, the arrangement with Stimson was first made public last April in a document relating to Stimson's cleanup in Bonner, not the upper Blackfoot, serving to fuel critics' claims of surreptitiousness. And then, last September, a DEQ update on the Stimson Cooling Pond PCB Cleanup project plainly stated that "Stimson will also compensate DEQ for past and current costs incurred for this project by transferring certain property Stimson owns near Lincoln, Montana, to DEQ for use as a source of clean soils and as a waste repository for the cleanup of the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex-Mike Horse Mine Site." It's enough for Grimes to think Paymaster and the other less desirable repository locations amount to "a bunch of strawmen."

More than the sting of feeling that he and his neighbors aren't a part of the decision-making process, Grimes is facing the prospect of his peace and quiet being disrupted by an incessant hum of dusty dump trucks—for the next 10 years.

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