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One Dam Mess

Politics as much as science will decide Milltown Dam’s fate

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In the glacial crawl that is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund process, the 120-mile stretch of the Clark Fork River from Warm Springs Ponds near Anaconda to the Milltown Reservoir recently passed another milestone. With last month’s release of the Clark Fork River Ecological Risk Assessment, the site now enters the Feasibility Study phase, during which EPA will spend another 18 to 24 months deciding what option will be used for remediating the effects of 100 years of mining, milling and smelting on the Clark Fork River.

Due to the size and complexity of the Clark Fork River site, the nation’s largest Superfund site, the EPA essentially treats the Milltown Reservoir as a site unto itself. (An addendum to the Ecological Risk Assessment addressing the Milltown Reservoir is due out later this month.) Nevertheless, whatever remedy is chosen, there will be sweeping repercussions for the health of the entire river, and will likely be decided as much by politics as by hard science.

The crux of the issue is the question of whether Milltown Dam—and the 6 million cubic yards of arsenic and heavy metal-laden sediment accumulated behind it—stay or go. Needless to say, The Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), as the potentially responsible party for that mess, would just as soon like to see the dam and the contaminated sediment stay put. Cost estimates for removing the dam run in the neighborhood of $10 million, while removing the contaminated sediment could be as much as $200 million. Interestingly, among all the criteria that the EPA considers in deciding on a final remedy, cost falls very low on the list, far below public acceptance.

“That’s why the public is so important to this process,” says Keith Large, remediation specialist with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. “What do you think the public would have done at Valdez if it would have cost 5 billion dollars instead of 2 billion? Do you think the public would have said, ‘Let’s leave the oil in place?’ Not hardly. We’re not talking billions of dollars here, either. We’re talking about contamination that’s in the environment affecting the fish, which in turn affects other animals in the environment.”

Those who support removing both the dam and the sediment argue that the sediment isn’t just sitting there but is slowly and steadily flowing through the dam, contaminating areas downstream and reducing fish populations in the lower Clark Fork. According to figures from Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana loses an estimated $7 million to $10 million annually from the loss of viable fisheries on the Clark Fork River, fisheries that could be made viable if the dam weren’t there.

“You don’t hear about a lot of outfitters taking people down to fish the Clark Fork River, do you?” asks Large. “Look how many outfitters are on the Blackfoot. The Clark Fork could be very, very similar.”

Stuck between a rock and a hard place is Montana Power Company (MPC), which owns the dam and would bear at least some of the cost for its removal. As of December, MPC is divested of most of its power-generating facilities except Milltown Dam, which generates hardly any electricity or revenue, but cannot be sold due to 6 million cubic yards of legal liability behind it.

As a result, MPC has filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) asking for an extended deadline on the termination of the dam’s license, currently set to expire on Dec. 31, 2004. MPC is hoping that a two-year extension will allow EPA enough time to issue its final ruling.

The reasons for MPC’s application are obvious. The dam is clearly not a money-maker, but with the listing of bull trout as a threatened species in July 1998, and the potential that cutthroat will be listed, MPC could be forced to construct an expensive fish ladder over or around it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already stated that it believes Milltown Dam is taking bull trout in violation of the Endangered Species Act, thus requiring some kind of interim conservation measures.

Moreover, Milltown Dam, which was built in 1906, is in need of structural upgrade. It is generally agreed that the dam can’t withstand the periodic ice floes that threaten its integrity and doesn’t meet current standards for earthquake resistance.

“That’s why this thing is such a mess,” says Geoff Smith of the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Coalition. “You’ve got Superfund, you’ve got FERC re-licensing and you’ve got Endangered Species issues all crashing together at a 90-year-old dam, and it’s made for some difficult decision-making. If we don’t do something about it now, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.”

Although the EPA cannot take a formal position on the Milltown site, those close to this project predict that the EPA will opt for leaving the sediments and the dam in place.

“I think that’s a short-sighted approach, and it doesn’t meet EPA’s legal obligation to protect human health and the environment, which are Superfund remedies,” says Smith. “EPA certainly seems to be heading down that track, but it’s our job to let them know what the public wants, and make sure they consider that and tell them what’s right for the river.”

“I can speak for the people of Missoula County,” said County Commissioner Barbara Evans at a Jan. 12 meeting. “They don’t give a rat’s rear what it costs. They just want it cleaned up.”

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