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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Grimes and McInnis suspect that the reason for precluding Section 36 from consideration has more to do with its proximity to the Sieben Ranch than the sledding hill.

As for John Baucus, he says he's still negotiating with the state and has been for several months. The talks are focused on process more than money, he says. He declines to estimate what he believes the property's mineral and development rights are worth, and notes that putting a price tag on it is part of the complication.

"We obviously intend to be up in this area for a long time," Baucus says. "We don't want to put ourselves at risk, but there's risk in anything you do, so where's the line at? That's what we're trying to figure out."

•••

Amber Kamps, the Lincoln district ranger, takes issue with the suggestion that the Stimson arrangement has in any way influenced the agencies' apparent preference for Section 35.

"Despite what you may hear from other people outside of our two agencies, it wasn't a driver," she says. "It still isn't a driver...The focus is completely on, Where is the best site? And how well is that site going to be able to handle waste for the long term? We're talking infinity here."

Even if it is a driver, Section 35 appears to be the best site currently under consideration. No one says it's not, except those for whom Section 35 sits within eyeshot (or earshot of a parade of dump trucks). Unfortunately for the agencies, the perception of disingenuousness can be as damaging as the real thing.

The next step is for the Forest Service and DEQ to release the technical analysis outlining all of the options. It's expected by late April, and a comment period will follow.

"Everyone recognizes that where this repository goes is a huge decision, and it's something that's going to impact all of us who like and care about and want to play in the Blackfoot," says Ihle. "So we have to make sure that we do a good job of displaying all the information we've collected thus far—the pros and cons of each one of these repositories—and do that well so the public can really be part of that process, and we're trying to follow through with that."

Regional Forester Leslie Weldon and DEQ Director Richard Opper will make the final decision. The removal of the Mike Horse Dam will begin following a year or two of design and prep work at both the dam and repository site. After more than three decades since the dam blew out, after seven decades since the Mike Horse Dam was built, and after more than a century since the Mike Horse Mine was first established, it's been a long time coming.

Count Bruce Farling, director of Montana Trout Unlimited, among those who have grown impatient.

"That mess up there has kept the fishery of the upper Blackfoot suppressed for a long time," he says. "You can sample fish in the Blackfoot that still have high levels of cadmium in them, and this is cadmium that was mobilized when that dam blew out in '75 and got into bed sediments and is constantly rolling downstream...The dam itself is a Milltown type of situation. That thing has the potential to come out again in a catastrophic kind of release."

click to enlarge Shellie Haaland, a reclamation specialist with the Department of Environmental Quality, stands inside the wastewater treatment plant that cleans water flowing from the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex. The treatment plant was built by ASARCO, and it will remain long after the restoration is complete. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Shellie Haaland, a reclamation specialist with the Department of Environmental Quality, stands inside the wastewater treatment plant that cleans water flowing from the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex. The treatment plant was built by ASARCO, and it will remain long after the restoration is complete.

Milltown, of course, is the federal Superfund site at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. It was officially removed in 2008, and restoration efforts are ongoing. Some say that if the Mike Horse Dam blew again, the years of work and millions of dollars spent on the Milltown Dam removal would be for naught.

Farling says removing the Mike Horse Dam will be the easy part; it's just excavation. The hard part will be limiting and treating seepage from the mine's underground works, finding and removing other discrete waste piles, and treating the contaminated wetlands downstream. And then there's the long-term restoration and monitoring. "There's stuff that we flat out aren't going to be able to take care of permanently, that we're going to have to deal with in perpetuity," he says. Which is why the wastewater treatment, and the pipe running from it that essentially serves as the Blackfoot's headwaters, will remain long after the dam is gone.

"That stuff has to be collected and treated forever," he says. "It's a genie out of the bottle situation not unlike Butte, where we have all those underground workings. Of course, all that stuff ends up in the [Berkeley Pit]. We don't have a pit up at the Mike Horse. What we got is drainages and it's ending up in the creek."

Farling, like Brick, says he's concerned about groundwater issues at Section 35, and he encouraged the DEQ to explore other options, including McDonald Meadows and hauling the material over Rogers Pass. But he acknowledges that science—and "agency prejudices"—both point to Section 35. He says he's told Grimes and McInnis that if it's ultimately selected he'd push the state to "mitigate the hell out of that for those guys."

Once the dam is trucked away, the restoration will begin. It's years off, but the state last month began soliciting public comment on a draft conceptual restoration plan for the Upper Blackfoot Mining Complex. It proposes general approaches to integrating restoration and remediation activities. Grimes, incidentally, says seeking comment on the restoration before seeking comment on the repository puts the cart before the horse, and he cites it as another example of the agencies' deceitfulness. But the document itself makes clear that the purpose of defining the restoration vision is so the dam's removal can support the best long-term outcome. The Montana Department of Justice's Natural Resource Damage Program will accept comments through April 15.

In the end, the dilemma centers on the struggle between the urgency to remove the dam as soon as possible, mounted up over decades, and the patience required to find the safest possible site. Every spring Farling gets nervous about the potential for a replay of 1975. And with the current snowpack deeper than it's been in years, this spring will probably keep him on edge more than most.

Those leading the upper Blackfoot's restoration stress the need to do it right the first time. The trick is striking the appropriate balance between prudence and promptness—and staying within budget.

"You don't want to do it twice, I tell you what," Ihle says. "This is our one shot in history. You have to think about that. If you just want to make it go away, you make decisions that work for now, and you basically say, 'We're not going to worry about the long term operations and maintenance and the risk. We just want to get it done.' We cannot work that way. When's the next time we're going to get [$39 million]? When is the next time we're going to see this kind of money? We don't have the money to do this twice."

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