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News: Role of State Attorneys General in National Environmental Policy

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As part of a recent symposium on the "Role of State Attorneys General in National Environmental Policy" at Columbia University in New York City, I was asked to speak about Montana's natural resource damage lawsuit against ARCO, the resulting settlement, and how the money recovered is being used to restore and replace the injured natural resources in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.

The symposium offered an opportunity for frank discussions among state attorneys general, their key staff members and law professors on environmental topics of current national significance. In addition to discussions of natural resource damages and the lawsuits that states have brought to restore natural resources, the symposium addressed global warming and the lawsuits that have been filed against the nation's largest emitters of carbon dioxide; ground water pollution and, particularly, the contamination by the gasoline additive MTBE in groundwater throughout the United States.

Participants came from across the country, and they were keenly interested in the success of Montana's lawsuit and its Natural Resource Damage (NRD) Program. A series of photographs helped convey the enormity of the mining-related contamination and the injury to the Basin. I showed them photos of the Berkeley Pit, the Opportunity Ponds and the Anaconda Smelter Stack, which, in its prime, left many areas in and around the city of Anaconda contaminated and, in some cases, practically devoid of vegetation.

In 1983, the State of Montana filed its natural resource damage lawsuit against ARCO to recover damages for injuries to the Basin's water, soils, vegetation, fish and wildlife and for the public's lost use and enjoyment of these resources. As part of the 1999 settlement, the state received $215 million, including about $130 million earmarked to restore or replace the injured resources. In early 2000, the State finalized the criteria and procedures for spending the $130 million. A grant process was established that is administered by the NRD Program. Under this process, government agencies and private entities and individuals are eligible to apply for funds for projects that will restore or improve the injured natural resources and the recreation opportunities that accompany them, including hunting and fishing.

One part of the discussion at Columbia was that, just as the smelter and related mining operations brought Anaconda a vibrant economic base and a fine way of life for years, today the restoration is another source of revenue for the Anaconda community. The restoration dollars collected by the NRD Program as a result of the smelter-related contamination and the subsequent lawsuit are being infused into Anaconda and other Basin communities, creating jobs and restoring the environment.

To date, the state has completed four restoration grant cycles and awarded about $24.3 million for 35 projects. Of this amount, about $11.2 million has been approved for eight projects in the Anaconda area. These approved projects involve:

* Replacing 9,770 feet of leaking waterline in Anaconda and installing 2,150 feet of new waterline at Bowman airport;
* Restoring 27 stream miles in the Lost Creek watershed;
* Designing fish passage and screen devices at Myers and Twin Lakes Dams;
* Developing optimum seed and plant material for revegetating the Anaconda upland areas;
* Assessing groundwater quality in Opportunity area wells;
* Acquiring and cleaning up the site that will be used as the Anaconda rest stop along Interstate 90;
* Acquiring 363 acres at Stuart Mill Bay along the southeast shore of Georgetown Lake for public recreational use and preservation of fish and wildlife habitat; and
* Acquiring 9,000 acres of prime wildlife habitat and recreational lands in the Garrity Mountain area near Anaconda.

In addition, the state has approved about $8 million for restoring the first eight miles of the Silver Bow Creek Greenway, which will ultimately extend hiking and biking trails from Butte to the Anaconda area.

The state is also considering two other proposals for funding this year that will benefit Anaconda. One project will continue the waterline replacement, and the other will provide an environmental education program for local, school-aged children. The NRD Program is also actively involved in the planning and potential funding of restoration in the Anaconda uplands area, the Dutchman wetlands and along Warm Springs, Mill and Willow Creeks.

After the presentations on natural resource damages, the audience asked a number of questions about Montana's experience. One particularly relevant question involved how this state can be sure that it is spending its recovered damages on worthwhile restoration projects.

This is an important concern, but I described to the Columbia University audience how Montana has created a restoration funding process within its NRD Program. This process, with its many checks and balances and opportunities for public input, assures that the money will be well spent. For example, several people from the Anaconda area serve on our advisory council, including chairman Jim Flynn.

That public input process is one reason Montana can be considered an example for natural resource damage programs around the nation. Montana, and the communities of the Upper Basin in particular, can be proud we are at the national forefront of restoring natural resources contaminated by this nation's past pollution practices.

Mike McGrath is Montana's attorney general.

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