Interests dammed? 

A well-funded group takes charge in Bonner-Milltown

With a Superfund remedy on the way in the Bonner-Milltown area, critics say an interest group with established ties to the Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO)—the cleanup’s legally responsible party—has hijacked the community council, as evidenced by a controversial board decision, the foes contend.

As of late April, an application for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “smart growth” grant in Bonner-Milltown sat in the tube, ready for Missoula County planning officials to send it off. The grant would have supplied a crew of consultants to the town to preach a brand of regulation-intensive, anti-sprawl community planning when the Superfund remediation work is finished.

On April 25, the county received an e-mail from Bruce Hall, the executive director of Bonner Development Group (BDG), an influential community organization. The communiqué insisted that the grant first win approval by the Bonner-Milltown Community Council, which had previously and publicly supported the application.

A day later, Hall followed up with a letter to County Planner Laval Means, stating that “our community (defined by the Bonner School District) does not have a demonstrated understanding of, or commitment to, the principles of smart growth, one of the nine evaluation criteria outlined in the EPA grant.”

The council then suddenly reversed its position and killed the grant proposal at a May 6 special meeting, denying pubic comment in the process. The lone dissenting council member on the matter, Gary Matson, was so outraged at the situation that he resigned his board position in protest.

“What was really frustrating is that it was a public meeting in Montana and the Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) director for Missoula County was not allowed to speak, nor were the 40 citizens present,” says the OPG’s Roger Millar, who attended the meeting to elaborate on the concept of smart growth practices.

In an interview with the Independent, Matson said his decision to leave the council was based partly on the circumstances surrounding the grant application’s sudden demise, but also due to the belief that the BDG had wrested control of the board. The former council member asserts that at least three of his former associates on the five-person panel vote in line with principles of the BDG, which was built on seed money provided by ARCO.

State filings by the group highlight Matson’s statements—the paper trail shows that council member Ken Peers has served on the BDG board of directors and so has Mike Whitman, the spouse of council member Kathy Whitman.

“That’s a more misplaced type of influence than a community should be subjected to,” Matson says.

Bonner-Milltown residents in opposition to the BDG’s conservative community growth politics suspect that recent council appointee Mike Mosley—a self-styled “adamant opponent” of countywide zoning—will continue the trend of BDG support.

BDG’s political values favor maintaining the community’s historical flavor as a frontier mill outpost. Along with ARCO, the group has opposed destruction of the Milltown Dam—breached just this spring—in favor of a more reserved Superfund remedy that would preserve the dam as a historical structure.

Though the group has not received funding from ARCO since at least 2003, some opponents believe it remains an agent of the international petroleum giant. The BDG’s Hall did not respond to phone or e-mail requests for comment as of press time, nor did council members Whitman or Peers.

According to Millar and various EPA officials, the agency would not have made ARCO pick up the tab for the grant expense—thereby deflating speculation that that this latest order came directly from the oil company’s Montana office. However, the recent shift of power to the BDG’s historical preservation philosophies continues to distress proponents of a thorough Superfund cleanup of the Clark Fork River. For Matson and his crew, the situation seems eerily similar to the one in Butte, where vast mining facilities that would have required an ARCO-funded cleanup have been largely left in their contaminated state, purportedly in the interest of preserving the past.

“The difference between Butte and Milltown has been the work of local activists in opposing ARCO,” says Montana Tech engineering historian Pat Munday, who has studied the impact of community activism on Superfund remediation projects.

However, Matson says the local activists in Bonner-Milltown have now lost control of the community council. Other board members argue that’s simply not true. “Gary is unhappy that there are people in the community with different views than his,” says council president Toby Dumont.

Fueling the political speculation that BDG holds too much sway in Bonner-Milltown is the fact that the group is particularly well funded for a small-town organization. Tax records indicate that it spent $130,000 in 2006—the most recent year with data available. A large part of the group’s income comes from interest drawn off a D.A. Davidson brokerage account with a balance of just over $1 million.

A 2004 IRS filing indicates that the money came from a 2003 donation of $900,000, a sum large enough to narrow the list of potential donors to the very well-heeled—ARCO included.

Multiple off-the-record sources say the donation was linked to a 2003 land-use deal between ARCO, the BDG and an equestrian group called the Missoula County Sheriff’s Posse, led by Jeff Patterson, a county supervisor candidate and outspoken ally of Hall. Records show the BDG purchased the property connected to the reported deal from Champion International for $10 in 1995.

EPA project manager Russ Forba confirmed that ARCO reached a deal in 2003 to use the BDG land as a fill source, but could not elaborate on specifics since the agency was not a party to the agreement.

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