Trickle of voices 

The investment in echo-absorbing acoustic tiles in the University of Montana’s Urey Lecture Hall proved wise at a May 8 Environmental Protection Agency hearing on the removal of Milltown Dam. A sparse crowd of about a hundred citizens showed up to listen and talk to the EPA about the particulars of an ambitious $95 million dredging and dam demolition plan.

Bonner and Milltown residents, with a fraction of the population of their big sister city just downstream, turned out 150 people at Bonner School the night before.

“I think the turnout [in Missoula] showed people are thinking this is a done deal,” says Tracy Stone-Manning of the Clark Fork Coalition. At the Missoula meeting, Stone-Manning turned in to the EPA more than a thousand comment cards written by Missoula residents. She says the cards should reinforce the city’s support for removal of the dam.

Though the EPA has made the decision to remove the dam, the “done deal” stamp may be premature. ARCO/British Petroleum, the energy giant footing the bill for the project under a mandate from the federal Superfund law, is engaged in closed-door negotiations with the EPA over the Milltown clean-up.

One reward of the dickering for discount dam removal may have already been revealed: The initial draft of the plan calls for dumping most of the 2.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment in Bandmann Flats, an East Missoula chunk of real estate currently zoned for residential development.

Boosters of the dam removal project expressed nearly unanimous concern over a permanent toxic waste repository so close to the Garden City.

“I really think of the river as the soul of this city,” testified City Councilman John Torma, “and would like to stand with Sen. Max Baucus and others who are asking that the EPA consider other options for these sediments.”

Triel Culver of American Whitewater is looking beyond sentiments about sediments and toward the possibility of a world-class whitewater park at the restored confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers.

“It was disappointing to see the artist’s rendition of the completed project with all that flat water,” testified Culver, pointing out that the kind of facility he envisions could more than compensate for long-term revenue lost in the removal of the dam. When asked why a constituency of kayakers didn’t make their wishes known at the meeting, Culver shrugged and guessed, “They’re probably all out boating.”

The EPA’s comment period on the Milltown project ends June 20.

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