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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"It's not just property values," he says. "It's dust and pollution...and what about a seismic event? Even if they get a thing that doesn't leak initially, we're talking about perpetuity here. Who can even comprehend that? If you're within the watershed and near tributaries, it's just a crazy decision."

Section 35 does include tributaries. Nora Creek snakes through it, then winds down onto Grimes' property before mingling with Willow Creek and finally the Blackfoot. Haaland and staffers at Trout Unlimited and the Clark Fork Coalition say Grimes has very little to worry about in terms of groundwater contamination, but he maintains that the tailings ought to be trucked out of the watershed altogether.

"It's going to hurt the hell out of me and my family and my neighbors from a lot of different aspects," he says. "But besides that, it's a stupid place to be putting a repository when they're trying to protect the Blackfoot River."

Grimes isn't the only one voicing disapproval. Jack McInnis, who lives at the confluence of Willow Creek and the Blackfoot, says arguments in favor of Section 35 don't hold water. He proceeds to tick off the names of about a dozen other neighbors who agree.

click to enlarge Mike Grimes staunchly opposes entombing the tailings on Section 35, which sits across the road from his property. “It’s a stupid place to be putting a repository when they’re trying to protect the Blackfoot River,” he says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Mike Grimes staunchly opposes entombing the tailings on Section 35, which sits across the road from his property. “It’s a stupid place to be putting a repository when they’re trying to protect the Blackfoot River,” he says.

McInnis makes the case for hauling the waste over Rogers Pass to dry ground, where it wouldn't pose a threat to the Blackfoot watershed. The Forest Service and DEQ say doing so, beyond costing an estimated three times more, raises safety risks.

Says McInnis: "They're going to take rigs that are 200-feet-long and 500,000 pounds"—referring to ExxonMobil's oil sands modules slated to travel Highway 200 on their way to Alberta—"over Rogers Pass, and those are adequately safe, but a gravel dump truck going over the pass is a prohibitive risk? Why that's such a specious argument that they, I think, have finally realized that that doesn't carry much credibility."

McInnis doubts it would cost significantly more to take the tailings over the pass, saying, only partly in jest, that since it's all downhill "they'd spend more on brake linings than they would on gas." He's convinced the real reason the agencies aren't considering sites outside the Superfund boundary is that doing so would require more environmental review—which would draw out the process even longer and cost more. (The boundaries of the Superfund site are still being defined, but they certainly wouldn't extend east over the pass; the Mike Horse Dam blew out to the west.)

"At this point in time, after 20 years or more of fighting with that material, what's another year or so in developing an appropriate repository?" McInnis says. "But they won't listen to that."

John Baucus has the "veto power," as McInnis calls it, to force the agencies to look in another direction. And Baucus' influence extends beyond just Section 35; the Sieben Ranch owns mineral and development rights all around the area, allowing Baucus to "keep anything unsavory out of his own backyard." While he acknowledges that Baucus' involvement could help his cause, McInnis says it's "perceptually improper that the Baucus family is involved in this."

"I don't know anybody up there that isn't against it," he says. "But we're fighting with the Forest Service, DEQ, Stimson Lumber and last, but not least, by any means, the Baucus family."

Jim Paris, chairman of the Lincoln Community Council, says he can understand neighbors' concerns, but he doesn't agree with the assertion that the DEQ and Forest Service have worked in secrecy. He feels the agencies gave the community "adequate" notice about Section 35.

click to enlarge The Blackfoot River, one of the most revered and iconic rivers in the West, effectively originates from a 4-inch pipe, and then flows 132 miles to its confluence with the Clark Fork River. The river’s banks near the headwaters still show signs of acid mine drainage. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The Blackfoot River, one of the most revered and iconic rivers in the West, effectively originates from a 4-inch pipe, and then flows 132 miles to its confluence with the Clark Fork River. The river’s banks near the headwaters still show signs of acid mine drainage.

"I kind of get the feeling sometimes that we receive so many different notices and things from the Forest Service that sometimes it becomes overload and people don't pay quite as close attention to what they're receiving as they should," he says.

Chris Brick, science director of the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition, is paying close attention. She doesn't subscribe to Grimes' theories of corruption, but she does caution that decision makers don't know enough about Section 35 to decide. She's suspending judgment until the state makes more data available.

"I'd like to see how high groundwater gets there in the spring," Brick says. "Certainly there are some environmental concerns on that site with respect to high groundwater in the lower elevations, and so what I'd want to know before I would say, 'Sure, this is a reasonable site,' is exactly where they would put the repository, and exactly how they would construct it.

"I am not sure I see fatal flaws that immediately disqualify it," she adds, "but I definitely have some concerns."

Grimes has gone so far as to build a website to rally support for his cause—www.helpsavetheblackfoot.net. It aims to shed light on the "potentially devastating plans to create a mining waste dump in the watershed of the Blackfoot River" and attempts to "keep this information quiet." Grimes also penned a letter to Attorney General Steve Bullock, dated March 11, calling the repository selection process "underhanded and unethical." He said unless Bullock can assure him that Section 35 is off the table, "my neighbors and I will have no alternative but to fight this terrible decision in the public arena and, unfortunately, in court."

Grimes agrees with McInnis that the waste should be taken over Rogers Pass. But if it has to stay in the watershed, where would he put it?

"If I was forced to choose—and this is like choosing one of your children to shoot—if I was forced to make a decision on these sites, that's the only one that's dry," he says, placing his finger on Section 36 of the map. "It's a whole mile away from the Blackfoot."

Section 36 is east of Section 35, toward the Sieben Ranch, and it happens to be home to a popular sledding hill. As Haaland would later say when driving by the hill, "This would have been a really bad idea. You only thought people were mad," suggesting the outcry over Section 36 would be even louder.

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