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a pig in a poke

January 6, 2011
Planting one of the cells at the BP-ARCO Waste Repository.

Planting one of the cells at the BP-ARCO Waste Repository.

I’m a bit out of order here, if not out of sorts, but the first post of the New Year is about something that happened in mid-December last year. I almost missed it. I don’t go the 14 miles into Anaconda anywhere near every day, but Dec. 13 I did, to return some DVDs to the library and see if they had anything watchable left on the rack.

There’s was an 8.5 x 11 color copy posted to the front door announcing that evening’s Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee meeting at the Anaconda courthouse. I wish I’d know earlier because the meeting was at 7:30 and it was only 3:30 and I couldn’t just stay in town that long with the dogs inside at home, so I was going to have to make two trips to Anaconda in one day. Inefficient. I try to plan to avoid that.

It was about 20 degrees and blowing snow when I came back that evening, and I was one of about 30 people sitting on benches in the main courtroom in the mid-restoration courthouse. (Everything around here is in some stage of resto or another.)

CFTAC is one of those inevitable bureaucratic outreach organizations whose sense of institutional humor tends toward self-deprecatory references to alphabet soup. CFTAC’s purpose is to update the citizenry about the bewildering array of of state/federal/corporate Superfund work going on in and around Anaconda. It had been more than a year since they’d last met here.

The first speaker referred repeatedly to “the Opportunity Ponds” until a man in back raised his hand and asked the speaker if he was aware that the name of the site had been changed. Opportunity residents don’t want to be namesakes for the poisoned perpetuity next door, and their “successful lobby to change the site’s name has been one of their few victories.

The official speaking, a veteran of the project, didn’t know what his questioner was talking about.

“What’s it called now?”

The BP-ARCO Waste Repository, he was told.

“Okay,” said the official. “Well the site’s official name is Opportunity Ponds, as reflected in the Record of Decision”—the EPA’s guiding document for site management—”but you can call it whatever you want.”

The official stumbled over the new name for two or three reiterations and then reverted to “Opportunity Ponds.”

The actual news wasn’t any more encouraging.

Let me recap just a bit:

The main restoration issue on the Clark Fork River over the past few years has been the dismantling of Milltown Dam near Missoula and the removal of lots of toxic sediment from the bed of the reservoir behind it. ARCO, the responsible corporate party, had two concurrently pressing problems. They needed someplace to remove the sediment to. And upstream at Opportunity, they had need of topsoil to spread across thousands of acres of tailings ponds at the community’s doorstep. ARCO, being clever and wary of costs, wondered if maybe the Milltown sediments, dried out and perhaps tilled with lime or manure, might work to cap the ponds with vegetative, soil-holding growth, solving both problems.

The bad news is that it hadn’t worked. After shipping and prepping and spreading and planting the Milltown topsoil in Opportunity, nothing would grow on it.

Opportunity, which never wanted the Milltown waste in the first place, had been assured that the toxic sediments were a solution, not more problem. It had been repeatedly reported that the Milltown sediments—a tiny fraction of the waste already piled in Opportunity’s ponds—was in any case less toxic than what was already there, and so no net degradation.

That, meeting attendees were told, also turned out to be false. In fact for a variety of technical reasons that one might think could have been ascertained beforehand through study, the new cap of Milltown dirt was substantially more toxic than the toxic dirt it had covered. And since the entire issue in managing the Opportunity Ponds is to keep unsecured toxic dust from flying through the community, the import of the Milltown sediments had in fact made the problem worse.

It’s worth noting again that the Milltown sediments were never studied for their suitability as topsoil in Opportunity. Why wouldn’t you do that? Because it didn’t matter. Despite what Opportunity was told, the Milltown sediments weren’t imported to cap the ponds. The Milltown sediments were imported because ARCO needed someplace to dump the Milltown sediments. If the sediments somehow worked as soil too, that would be two birds killed with one stone and topped with cream gravy, as far as ARCO was concerned. Otherwise, it was simply the corporation’s cheapest available solution to the removal problem.

Not a few meeting attendees seemed to have a hard time grasping the full blatancy of what had just happened. One guy, exhibiting a complete lack of grasp, kept calling for the Milltown waste to be “sent back to Missoula” since it hadn’t worked as advertised. Others, with perhaps a better grip on the situation, suggested that the whole deal was the result of mutually beneficial backroom collusion between Montana Sen. Max Baucus, ARCO, and Dennis Washington: the ARCO contractor whose rail line, Montana Rail Link, and restoration company, Envirocon, likely stood to gain the most from the Opportunity solution.

The EPA, aside from having to put a guy in the front of that room to get insulted for an hour or so, is the enforcement agency that approves and oversees ARCO’s remediation responsibility. Now that the Milltown cap has failed, ARCO has til spring to come up with a plan to provide the EPA-specified 6  to 18 inches of functional growth medium on top of the Opportunity tailings before EPA steps in and simply tells ARCO what to do. I wouldn’t expect that particular outcome.

At least a few Opportunity residents fear that ARCO is eyeing the community’s last visual buffer of uncontaminated treeline between the community and the ponds to raid for the “donor soil.” ARCO owns the land, after all, and soil is expensive to buy and expensive to haul.

It’d be hard to gainsay Opportunity’s suspicion.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 12, 2011 9:10 am

    Good post! I’m citing you in a footnote for my MPR commentary today. MPR posts the document on its website. Thank you for the good information and perspective on this never-ending problem.

  2. May 23, 2011 5:37 pm

    I just found out – the EPA’s follow up meeting is scheduled for Anaconda courthouse Tuesday May 24 tomorrow at 6pm. ARCO should buy the tested and approved MontanaGrow Native Topsoil and solve the issue right away.

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