Clark Fork River

In this photo taken in summer 2016, the Clark Fork River near Deer Lodge is visible by plane. DEQ is slowing down the 44-river mile cleanup to try to save money. 

With $77 million left to remove metals from the Clark Fork River, the Department of Environmental Quality is in danger of running out of money to finish the Clark Fork  Superfund cleanup, DEQ officials said during a meeting in Deer Lodge Tuesday.

This has led to a slowdown on the 44-mile planned removal of the river’s heavy metals — arsenic, lead, copper, zinc and cadmium — left behind from more than 100 years of mining and smelting in Butte and Anaconda.

The original settlement of $134 million came out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s lawsuit against Atlantic Richfield Company, the corporation responsible for the damage, in 2008.

Of that, DEQ received $95 million to take the lead and get the work done. EPA provides support to the project.

An additional $12.5 million went into a reserve account to protect against cost overruns and the Natural Resource Damage Council got $26.5 million to do restoration work along the 44-mile stretch.

With eight miles of the river cleaned up, DEQ is now putting the brakes on the project and extending its life so it’s not expected to be finished until 2032.

Previously, DEQ estimated the cleanup would be complete around 2026, said state project manager Joel Chavez.

Because of the slowdown, DEQ did no work beyond “minor matters,” such as weeding and replacing temporary culverts, during the 2017 construction season, Chavez told The Montana Standard Tuesday.

By putting off any significant construction in 2017, DEQ gained $250,000 in interest on the principal.

But at this point, that’s only a drop in the bucket. DEQ hopes to resume the cleanup next spring, getting started with removing metals from Grant Kohrs Ranch, a national historic site commemorating western cattle ranching downstream of Deer Lodge. Chavez estimates that DEQ's tab to ship “dirty dirt” by truck from Grant Kohrs Ranch to the Opportunity ponds toxic waste repository alone will be around $4 million. The work at the ranch was supposed to have begun this year.

The 44-mile cleanup of the Clark Fork River, from Warm Springs Ponds to Garrison, has been ongoing since 2011. The work began along the river in Deer Lodge and included pasture removal of soils along East Side Road where ranchers had irrigated with metal-laden water from the river.

Since then, DEQ has removed around 1.3 million cubic yards of contaminated soils.

Rancher William Pauley, who has riverfront property, was among the approximately 45 residents who attended the meeting at the Elks Lodge in Deer Lodge Tuesday evening. Pauley said that for the local ranchers, this news comes as no surprise.

“A lot of ranchers thought they’d run out of money,” he said. “They should’ve planned better.”

Chavez said that in addition to slowing down the work, DEQ is considering creating toxic waste repositories along the way instead of shipping the “dirty dirt” all the way back to Opportunity ponds north of Anaconda.

Chavez said the public will have ample opportunity to weigh in on that decision and DEQ won’t resort to that measure unless there is “public buy-in.”

Chavez said the areas DEQ is going to study for potential toxic repositories would be state-owned land halfway between Deer Lodge and Opportunity on the east side of Interstate 90 and state-owned land halfway between Deer Lodge and Garrison on the west side of Interstate 90.

Chavez is also asking NRD to contribute more toward restoration. So far, NRD has put between $2 and $3 million toward revegetating the cleaned-up sections of the river, NRD environmental science specialist Tom Mostad said.

Mostad said NRD is putting in a fishing access site this winter in Racetrack Creek as part of its restoration efforts on the Clark Fork. Mostad said NRD has “talked a lot about pitching in more,” with DEQ.

The slowdown doesn't appear to be good news for fish any more than it is for the ranchers along the river waiting for the work to get done. Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist Nathan Cook said he’s seeing an increase of copper showing up in trout as fish move downstream.

Copper is showing up in the gills, stomachs and livers of the fish. Cook has been conducting studies on the fish to monitor the amount of metals accumulating in their bodies since 2008.

Cook said the “fish can deal with it to a certain point.”

But the cumulative effect is contributing to high fish mortality. The copper could also be impacting their growth and reproduction, but that’s hard to measure, Cook said.

Another elevated metal FWP is seeing in trout in the Clark Fork is zinc, which is also toxic to fish.

Chavez said DEQ hopes to get to work at the beginning of construction season next spring, but an agreement with BNSF Railroad has not been signed yet. DEQ has to travel across the railroad tracks for the project.

BNSF Railroad public affairs director, Ross Lane, said, via email, from Billings Wednesday that “BNSF is currently discussing the terms of the agreement with DEQ.”

The agreement would enable DEQ to install a haul road and establish a temporary private crossing across BNSF track. BNSF wants to ensure safety while evaluating DEQ’s request, according to Lane.

Rancher Paul Relf, whose land includes river frontage, has been going to meetings on the Clark Fork cleanup for 20 years. He has mine and smelting waste on his property. 

With the slowdown, he estimates it will take DEQ another five to six years before the agency can get to his land.

Relf said he tried to do work himself to remove the toxins but the major flood in 2011 washed away the dirt he’d brought in and brought more toxins to the surface, killing the brush that had been “perfectly healthy” and growing along the bank.

“I’m really affected by what’s going on,” he said.  

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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