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Missoulian - "State Attorney General Optimistic Dam Will Be Removed"

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Missoulian - "State Attorney General Optimistic Dam Will Be Removed"

On this, every elected official in the room - Democrat and Republican, state and local - agreed Tuesday afternoon: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should order the removal of Milltown Dam and the metals-contaminated sediments in its reservoir.

"I am very optimistic. I think it's coming out," Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath said during a meeting with the Missoula County commissioners, a pair of Republican state legislators, Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas and City Councilman Ed Childers.
"We have a very unique opportunity here to bring all the parties together who have an interest in this and to do what is best," said McGrath, in town for a noontime speech, the meeting with local officials and a visit with his 12-day-old granddaughter. "The waste can be cleaned up, the dam can be removed and the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers can be returned to their natural courses."

County Commissioner Barbara Evans, a Republican, invited Democrat McGrath to both the lunch-hour meeting of the Missoula Kiwanis Club and the get-together at the County Courthouse. "It's an old dam. It is not going to last forever," she told the attorney general. "And we don't want it left to our county's taxpayers to clean up."

Because Milltown Dam has - since 1908 - blocked the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers at their junction, its reservoir holds 6.6 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated with mine and smelter tailings washed downstream from Butte and Anaconda.

The sediments have polluted drinking water in nearby Milltown with arsenic and river water downstream with fish-killing quantities of copper. The dam, some believe, poses yet another hazard because of its age and deteriorating condition.

Later this year, the EPA will propose a cleanup plan for Milltown Reservoir; that decision will determine the fate of the dam as well. After 20 years of research, the options are two: Improve the dam and leave the sediments in place. Or remove both the sediments and the dam.

McGrath said he recently intervened in the Public Service Commission's consideration of Montana Power Co.'s sale of its electric transmission and distribution assets because the transaction includes Milltown Dam and its hydroelectric plant.

In his speech to the Kiwanis Club, McGrath said he was worried that the sale would somehow leave taxpayers with the tab for some or all of the Milltown cleanup.

Montana Power believes it is not responsible for the sediment removal costs. But Arco Environmental Remediation, which is responsible for the cleanup because it is descended from Anaconda Copper Co., has not ruled out the possibility that it may eventually insist that MPC foot some of the bill.

"I wanted to make sure that no one pulls a W.R. Grace and leaves Montana taxpayers holding the bag," McGrath said. (In Libby, where vermiculite mining contaminated a large area with asbestos, W.R. Grace took a number of steps to shield itself and limits its corporate liability.)

"Grace filed for bankruptcy and left Libby in the lurch," the attorney general said. "Despite all the profits Grace has extracted from Montana, taxpayers here will now have to come up with the state's share of the cleanup."

"And while the Superfund designation for Libby is a very good thing, and something I strongly support, I didn't want to see the same mistakes repeated at Milltown," McGrath said. By filing as an intervenor, McGrath said he received written assurances that the sale agreement provides a $55 million cash reserve to meet any environmental or safety liability associated with Milltown Dam. Indemnity agreements cover additional liabilities.

At the meeting later in the afternoon, County Commissioner Bill Carey told McGrath that both city and county officials have adopted resolutions calling for removal of Milltown's sediments and dam.

"That's the soundest thing we can do in the short term or the long term," said Carey, a Democrat. The opportunity for an effective and lasting cleanup will only come, he said, if the dam is removed.

A similar sentiment came from Commissioner Jean Curtiss, a Democrat, and from Republican state Rep. Dick Haines of Missoula. "From my perspective, I think the dam's condition itself is going to step in front of all the other problems," he said. "We can talk about all these other issues, but the dam will have to go. To fix it will mean starting over. I don't see how at this point in time anyone could want to keep that dam."

Childers, the city councilman, added his agreement: "I personally feel the dam needs to come out, not just the toxic sediments."

There were, however, some among the audience who supported - strongly - the dam's retention. Al Bellusci, a director of the Bonner Development Group, said the dam's demise would cost Bonner School an important chunk of its property tax base and the community its bonding capacity for a new sewer system.

"There is also the potential for a world-class research facility at Milltown Reservoir because of the sediments," he said. "We ought to consider more than the old technology of going in and mucking things out."

Robin Bullock, mining manager for Arco, reminded the politicians that her company's analysis of all the cleanup options available at Milltown showed the "in-place" remedy as the most effective, environmentally and fiscally.

Dredging the sediments from Milltown Reservoir would "make things worse," she said, by sending more pollution downstream. "You don't want to make anything worse," she said.

Montana Power consultant Jim Stillwell said work is in progress to make improvements at the dam and to verify its stability. There will be "no mystery," he said. "Every brick and stone in that structure will be thoroughly analyzed."

But will Milltown Dam stand or fall? one member of the audience asked. "I would say the dam is not going to fall next week," Stillwell said.

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