Mike Koopal, director of the Whitefish Lake Institute, squats next to where petroleum has been seeping into the Whitefish River from a leaky gas station storage tank
Across the small parking lot just north of the Town Pump gas station on U.S. Highway 93 in Whitefish, there’s a well-worn trail that leads down a hill and through some brush to a popular spring fishing hole on the Whitefish River.
Halfway down the trail you get your first whiff of a valley-wide problem. It’s a chemical stink, like an oil refinery, coming from the water.
At the river’s edge, Mike Koopal, director of the Whitefish Lake Institute, points to a puddle of oily sludge mixing with the water flowing down the channel.
Samples of the sludge taken by Koopal show levels of benzene, a chemical constituent of gasoline, at 39 times the federal standard allowable in drinking water.
Though the Whitefish River isn’t a local drinking water source, “This has potential health effects to the public,” Koopal says. “It’s a carcinogen, it causes birth defects and other health maladies, and it’s certainly an ecological threat.”
Koopal brought the situation to the attention of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in June. When swift action wasn’t taken, he brought it to the attention of the Whitefish City Council, which wrote letters to the DEQ and the governor on Aug. 13 demanding action.
It turns out the DEQ learned about the seep two years ago, on Aug. 8, 2005, when Whitefish resident Kevin Nimmo first reported it. And it’s just one of multiple environmental problems the DEQ has known about for years in the Flathead, but hasn’t fixed.
In 1997, John LaFave, a hydrogeologist for the Montana Groundwater Assessment Program, warned the DEQ of elevated levels of nitrates in the drinking water of Kalispell’s West Valley. The DEQ has been studying the problem ever since, but hasn’t come to any conclusions. Nitrate levels are so high now that some West Valley residents can’t drink their tap water at all.
Tammy Graham, a West Valley business owner who’s been active in trying to get the area’s water cleaned since 2000, is frustrated.
“I have no hopes that it will get resolved,” she says. “There isn’t an aggressive stance to pinpoint where the stuff is coming from, and the reason behind it is, there isn’t any funding. That’s what [the DEQ] has told me, over and over again.”
In the winter of 2006, LaFave found evidence that West Valley nitrates were seeping into the aquifer used by the rest of the valley for drinking water.
According to Laura Alvey of the DEQ’s Ground Water Remediation Division, the agency is still trying to determine which of several possible parties could be responsible for the pollution.
Since 1986, the agency has known about another contamination site near the Whitefish River on the west side of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail yard, which bisects Whitefish.
Petroleum is the main contaminant at this site, but according to John Arrigo, head of DEQ’s Enforcement Division, a layer of fine-grain clay has for the most part kept the pollution from getting to the river.
He says work toward a final cleanup of the site is progressing slowly, in part because there is no project director currently assigned to the site.
“I wouldn’t say that project is at a standstill, but it’s not moving as it should,” he says. “Until we have people to work on these sites, the work is not going to go.”
For more than 20 years, cleanup of a state Superfund site near the Stillwater River in Evergreen, which was contaminated by two oil refineries and a timber treatment plant, has plodded along.
According to Moriah Bucy, DEQ’s project manager for that site, the agency’s investigation to determine who, exactly, is responsible for cleanup is now nearing completion. She hesitates, however, to estimate when the actual cleanup might begin.
Depending on who you ask, the slow progress of cleanup at these sites is blamed on a blend of politics, funding and staffing issues, and the inherent difficulties of cleaning up contamination.
Jeff Barber, director of the nonprofit Montana Environmental Information Center’s water and mining program, says, “Part of it’s staffing, part of it’s funding shortfalls. But it is also a cultural thing started during the [former Montana Gov. Marc] Racicot years, when they decided that enforcement wasn’t a priority for them. Permitting became the priority.”
“Compare numbers in the permitting division to enforcement,” he says. “It’s not surprising they’re not doing anything.”
The DEQ website shows 14 employees in the enforcement division, and about 170 in the permitting division.
Montana Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish, also believes a combination of funding and politics is the problem.
Jopek notes that much of the funding for DEQ’s enforcement division comes from user fees—fees businesses pay when they get permitted for things like underground fuel storage tanks. Those fees, he believes, are too low to adequately fund enforcement.
But Jopek says when he sponsored a bill to raise fees for permitting gravel pits, another source of environmental controversy in the Flathead, he met with heavy resistance. His bill was defeated in the House.
“I think, particularly in the growth areas, if we don’t give the agency, which is supposed to protect our ground water, the tools to do the job, how do we expect them to do that in a timely manner?” Jopek asks.
Arrigo acknowledges that there may not be enough personnel to deal with certain problems, but he also notes that determining who is responsible for the pollution, as in the cases of the Evergreen Superfund site, the Whitefish River petroleum seep, or the West Valley’s nitrate pollution, is complicated.
“So yeah, with more resources and money we could do more faster, but a lot of these sites are very complex,” Arrigo says. “It just takes time.”
In the case of the Whitefish River petroleum seep, Arrigo says DEQ found the responsible party just last week.
Since 2003 the agency has been aware of a leak from one of the Town Pump’s underground fuel storage tanks, and Arrigo says tests now indicate that as the source of the seep. He expects cleanup to begin in two weeks.
Arrigo says the recent political attention brought by the Koopal and the Whitefish City Council has nothing to do with the sudden attention.
“Everything was ongoing, and the city kind of caught up to us,” Arrigo says.