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The difficulty in removing toxic sediments has hit Thompson Falls like a rock.

A river system can be visualized as a massive tree. Twigs are the creeks, branches are the rivers, and trunk (in our case) is the mighty Columbia. The Clark Fork River is the major limb of this immense Northwest tree, and we have treated it like a toilet.

When you love rivers, a large river-stilling dam is a tragedy. However, there is a consolation to be had: no dam lasts forever. In a thousand years every dam built today will be silted in. After the inevitable dam failure, the river returns, winding through deep sediments deposited by the impounded water. In the past, these deep soils would be farmable.

When your river is treated like a toilet, however, only vast amounts of geological time can heal the mistakes. In February 1997, a thundering ice jam pounded the old earthen-filled Milltown dam located at the junction of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork. Water containing arsenic and other heavy metals killed fish for 30 miles downstream. This flood and local well contamination propelled the movement to dismantle the old dam and move mining sediments away from running water. At great cost, the poison mud is dug, hauled up river and dumped near another Super Fund mining reclamation site.

The difficulty of removing toxic sediments has hit Thompson Falls, Montana like a brick. Despite the presumably good efforts and best intentions of the Environmental Protection Agency, much higher than estimated amounts of arsenic, copper and other heavy metals were released downstream. The toxins were suspended in moving water through Missoula, Alberton, Superior, St Regis, Paradise, and Plains. When reaching the impoundment (which acts as a septic tank) behind the Thompson Falls dam, the heavy metals settled out.

The Mayor and County Commissioners have called for meetings with the EPA. Overlooking that it wasn’t a question of if, but when the old Milltown dam would fail—in which case all the toxins would have reached Thompson Falls—some have complained that the dam should have been left in place. The local newspaper editorialized about Missoula environmental groups that failed to consider downstream problems while pushing the dam removal. A river lover can certainly understand the local officials’ concern, but shake head in wonder at their hypocrisy.

Local leaders, casting blame and calling for action now that their water is contaminated, have been indifferent to downstream concerns. Most have supported the proposed Rock Creek Mine and believed that any ill effects can be mitigated. The inability of government agencies to control these persistent toxic elements, the cost in water quality, and public health concerns should give them pause in their chorus of approval for the proposed mine.

Revett’s plans to de-water the proposed tailings impoundment follows the old plumbing design: flush toxicity downstream. Avista, (the water power company that owns and operates the two dams on the lower Clark Fork, Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge), threw a wrench in this ‘dilution is the solution’ scheme. Avista denied Revett’s request to cross their waterside property with a pipe and dump toxicity into the Cabinet Gorge reservoir.

Most mine supporters aren’t evil people, but they are too trusting in a system that is broken. If they care about the environment, they have faith that environmental regulations will be enforced. However, Montana Department of Environmental Quality has such a backlog of permitting minor gravel pits that it has not had time to enforce Revett’s Troy Mine delinquent reclamation plan. We can’t count on them to oversee Revett’s Rock Creek operation when they have failed abysmally at the Troy Mine.

Understandably more jobs, customers and clients are appealing reasons to support the proposed mine, and many people see mine development as an economic upswing. These folks need to pause and consider that long-term economic growth depends upon clean and healthy water.

Many mine supporters are not knowledgeable about the microclimate around the proposed tailings pond encompassing the old Noxon dump. They have never seen a rain-on-snow event. They do not understand that this unlined tailings impoundment is dependent upon the slurry sinking into the ground water. The mine owners can say convincingly that the tailings are only inert sand, but they do not tell how the slurry, containing water-soluble toxins, nitrates from blasting and processing chemicals is required by the design to drain into ground water.

Under the proposed impoundment site runs a small river, which surfaces in the spring and has a ditch to direct it into the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir. A recent slope cut to create a business site nearby shows a thick layer of gravel, underlayed with nearly impermeable clay. In the spring, water gushed from the cut banks; the owner had to put in French drains. The soil between the reservoir and the proposed 600-acre tailings impoundment has proven to be unstable, requiring constant road repair. Engineers have expressed concern that the proposed tailings pile could create a slumping hazard for both the highway and railroad tracks.

So while efforts to rid the Clark Fork of past poison flushes are proving to be problematic, we, upstream as well as downstream, should be vigilant in protecting our branch of this most valuable resource.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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