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Lost highway

DEQ faces more criticism over Rock Creek Mine


For the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), 2008 will go down as a turbulent year. Amid reports of dysfunction within the ranks and an ongoing controversy surrounding the agency’s inability to effectively regulate new gravel pits, it seems that any news has been bad news for Director Richard Opper.

Now environmentalists are up in arms again over DEQ’s perceived failure to keep up with one of the Pacific Northwest’s most controversial mining projects—the proposed Rock Creek Mine under the pristine Cabinet Wilderness. Revett Minerals, which has changed names several times since buying the property from now-bankrupt Asarco in 1999, won the permit in Dec. 2001 after a public review process that generated more than 5,000 comments. Nearly seven years later, the controversy endures.

Cesar Hernandez, a cabin builder from Polson, traces his activism on area environmental issues back to the 1970s. He believes that he caught DEQ unaware that a recent plan adjustment by Revett might cause a large section of Highway 200 to slide right into the Clark Fork River.

“I’m really disappointed,” Hernandez says. “I thought when the Schweitzer administration came in and changes were made in DEQ that we’d see a higher caliber of professionalism and concern. It’s no better, if not worse, than when [Marc] Racicot was governor.”

The issue is currently under DEQ review, according to agency administrators and hydrologists. Engineers with the Montana Department of Transportation (MDOT), who are more familiar with geologic activity along the corridor, estimate the potential for a major disaster to be fairly remote.

Environmental watchdogs nonetheless wonder how the agency remained unaware of such a significant hazard until aided by a member of the public.

“It’s true that we didn’t consider the affect on the highway,” admits DEQ Bureau Chief Warren McCullough. “But as soon as we put the [Environmental Assessment] out and got the comments on it, we immediately got in contact with the highway department.”

Hernandez explains he became aware of structural concerns along Highway 200 after reading a news story about a 2007 soils study MDOT conducted on a 1,500-foot strip of the road near Noxon. When the data came back, the results confirmed the presence of a slide area activated by a water pipe that had ruptured uphill. Adding to pressure naturally exerted by the groundwater table, the accidental discharge actually caused parts of the road to slide toward the river. Geologists cautioned that the destabilized slide could cause a “catastrophic failure” along the highway if left alone.

“Although the slide is only affecting a small portion of the road at this time,” MDOT engineer Brain Collins wrote in 2007, “it is a very large mass—the slip plane extends 30 to 35 feet below the ground surface and the toe of the slide is below the river.”

About the same time, Avista Corp., which operates the Noxon Rapids hydroelectric dam, objected to allowing Revett to run a pipe through its property to discharge treated mine wastewater into the river. Revett instead suggested to discharge at the mine’s tailings repository, located uphill from Highway 200 and less than a mile from the stretch of road under repair by MDOT.

The original review of the proposed change did not include a public comment process. After environmentalists complained, the agency reconsidered, McCullough says, because of the “high-profile nature of the project.”

Given the chance to provide feedback, Hernandez raised the question of whether water flow from the discharge site could cause similar geologic activity when the mine begins operation. When he asked DEQ about the possibility of a catastrophic failure of Highway 200, as laid out in MDOT reports, Hernandez realized the agency hadn’t even spoken with state transportation engineers.

“The head and ass aren’t wired together,” Hernandez remarks. “One is identifying a problem of too much water and the other is contributing to that problem. Get it together, guys.”

“Our to reply to that is that we go out for comments to see if people feel as if we’ve missed something,” McCullough responds. “If we thought we knew everything, we wouldn’t need comments, and when we ask for them, we’re sincere. We want to know if we got it right or if we got it wrong.”

Though DEQ still lacks a plan on how to address the water issue, hydrologist Wayne Jepson says the agency will likely ask Revett to drill test wells downhill from the proposed discharge point to monitor water levels. He adds the potential for slide activity is not limited to any particular point of the valley, but extends all the way from Noxon to the Idaho border.

Concerned Noxon residents, like Betty Johnson of Huckleberry Mountain, say they’d like access to the hydrology reports as soon as DEQ finishes its analysis. Earlier in the year, Johnson says she rented a hall and invited the various corporate and government entities connected to the Rock Creek project to update the community. Only DEQ declined.

Residents also want to know how the slide prone valley might be impacted by the 340-acre-by-325-foot-tall tailings impoundment destined for an old dumpsite above the highway. Experts say depositing 100 million tons of rock should pressurize the underlying water table, which local mill operator Colin Larkin thinks is greater in volume than state agencies suspect.

Avista is less worried. The utility says it’s generally comfortable with the way DEQ is handling the situation. Revett Vice President of Operations Carson Rife echoes that appraisal, but says the agency could have done a better job putting notice in the local paper.

Hernandez isn’t surprised by that attitude.

“Everyone’s saying, ‘There isn’t a problem. There isn’t a problem,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Right, now there isn’t a problem,’” Hernandez says. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens here, because you can’t get away from the paper trail.”

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