Many mornings, earth-crushing machines wake Gary Botchek inside his Gunsight Court home by 5:30. Dust from the nearby open cut mine, which is currently operated by Knife River Corp., coats everything on Botchek's property. Since moving to the Fort Missoula neighborhood more than two decades ago, he's grown accustomed to the drawbacks of being so close to the facility. But he still doesn't like it.
"We've been affected for 22 years by their operation—the dust, the noise and everything else," Botchek says. "You deal with it."
Actually, city and state officials aren't so sure Botchek and other neighbors should simply "deal with it." New concerns over Knife River's operations—including the realization that it's already mining nearly three times more acres than it's permitted to—have called into question both the site's expansion and its eventual transfer to the city.
In 2002, Knife River's predecessor, JTL Group Inc., signed off on an agreement with the city of Missoula to gift the mining operation's 86.5 acres to the municipal parks system. After signing off on the deal, city officials set to work drawing out a blueprint for a recreational utopia atop the former gravel operation, complete with a boat dock, pier, picnic area and a nature trail. Knife River's riverfront parcel is now squarely incorporated into the Fort Missoula Master Plan, which aims to eventually bring together a patchwork of land to create a 246-acre outdoor paradise.
Now, stakeholders are unsure whether the company will leave its land in suitable condition for a riverfront park when it closes the facility in December 2012. According to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Knife River's existing operation is vastly larger than the 33 acres it's currently permitted to mine. In addition, the company aims to continue excavating gravel at the site for the next year and a half, meaning more work—and money—will be necessary to ensure the land can be transformed into a park.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Knife River’s gravel mining operation on the Bitterroot River spans roughly three times the area it is permitted for. The company is asking the DEQ for permission to continue mining the property for the next year and a half, before handing the land over to the city.
"It is ultimately important to me that this become an asset to the community, not a liability," says Missoula Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler.
Gaukler contacted DEQ last year hoping to better understand what kind of cleanup the oversight agency would require of Knife River. That inquiry triggered DEQ's site inspection. Once the agency found the mine operating well beyond its permit, DEQ forced Knife River to amend its permit to account for existing operations and mining yet to occur. Through that process, the agency is also asking Knife River to clarify exactly how it intends to leave the property.
"What this department can do is require that they provide a plan of reclamation consistent with the Open Cut Mining Act," says Chris Cronin, DEQ's open cut mining supervisor.
Montana's Open Cut Mining Act states the land must be returned to "productive use." Cronin says that definition may or may not be consistent with the city's park plans.
After DEQ ordered Knife River to update its permit, the company submitted an application to the agency March 31, elaborating on its future plans. That document also sent up red flags among city officials and neighbors like Botchek, who worry about Knife River's intention to leave the property with wildlife ponds and grassland vegetation. JTL Group originally agreed to help transform the land into a park.
"It certainly also concerns me, in that it changed," Gaukler says.
David Zinke, Knife River's vice president and general manager, says when Knife River assumed control of the mine, previous operators had already outgrown the permitted area. As for the cleanup, the company is now beginning the reclamation process and has every intention of complying with DEQ's requirements, as well as its commitments to the city. Ultimately, Zinke says when Knife River packs up, the property will be made suitable for wildlife habitat. With additional work and money invested by the city, he says it could potentially be suitable for parklands, as well.
"Our agreement still stands. Our intent is to donate the property to the city," Zinke says. "Our intent is to make it a safe facility."
In the meantime, he says the property still belongs to Knife River and the company aims to maximize its investment.
"We have to make sure we get our useful life—the value—out of the property," Zinke says.
Through the DEQ's permit amendment process, neighbors may formally request a public meeting through the agency. If 30 percent of Knife River's Fort Missoula neighbors—those from within a half-mile radius—submit a request in writing to DEQ before Sept. 13, the agency will schedule a time for the public to comment on Knife River's application to amend its permit.
"We definitely want to encourage the public's input," Cronin says.
As for Botchek, he hopes his neighbors will join him in making sure the land is properly passed on to future generations.
"I want the DEQ to hold their feet to the fire," Botchek says.