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The relicensing of Cabinet Gorge Dam has led to the protection of resources for all The relicensing of Cabinet Gorge Dam has led to the protection of resources for all

Surprise award

Why would a small, feisty environmental group give an award to a large, powerful energy company?  Once a year the two hundred or so member Cabinet Resource Group (CRG) presents a Miners Lamp Award for “extraordinary contribution, either through action or efforts, to educate the public about our natural resources”. This year the Miner’s Lamp was awarded to Avista.

While I have been a member of CRG since 1978 when ASARCO first proposed drilling under the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness above Rock Creek, I am not a player. I’m not on the field, not even on the sidelines. I’m up in the bleachers, giving away hot dogs. But even from this bird’s eye view, it is noticeable that the game has changed.

The players have matured. Montana is close to agreeing on a forestry bill that will keep mills open, and improve forest health and diversity. In working out the details of this bill, big environmental groups like Montana Wilderness Association, and small ones like CRG collaborated with industry and Forest Service to begin the massive work. Mature people are able to find common ground and collaborate.

Maturity and pragmatism has changed the game. Just the names of the dams, Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge, can make a river lover weep, but even cement dams do not last for thousands of years. In the meantime, the reservoirs have had interesting impacts on western Sanders County. The water table is higher; wells that once ran dry in August are now reliable all year long. The fish migrations are stopped, but a thriving bass population has made this lemon of impounded water into lemonade. A small human population has had less room to grow; less land to subdivide since water fills most of the valley and Avista owns a twenty-foot to half-mile wide swath of continual shoreline.

The game isn’t happening in the stadium; it happens in the long, tedious meetings. It requires patient determination to sit through butt-numbing hours, and elevated knowledge of the issues to hammer out a workable solution regarding use of our natural resources.

During these long hours of deliberation, the seed of understanding and respect for each other can be planted. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires a fifty-year review of each energy facility. This lead to years of meetings with the public, agency people, and Avista to create resource plans for the lands surrounding the Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge reservoirs. Seeds were planted as local people learned to respect individuals who represented Avista. Shoots appeared when Avista listened to the concerns of local land owners. Leaves unfolded as the management team reached a consensus and the agreement has had far-reaching results. 

One of the results regards waterside development. Let the buyer beware of the land developer who touts ‘lake’ front property. Avista owns the frontage. Docks require hard-to-get approval. The lot owner cannot cut any trees off the energy company’s property. In many cases, the still water will not be visible. Public trails could funnel strangers along Avista land right past the Montana hideaway. Anybody in a canoe could beach for a picnic.

It appears that Avista is a defender of its water as well as land resources. Not just the immense volume needed to generate electrical power, but the quality of the water has become important. From up in the bleachers, I suspect that is what led to the Miner’s Lamp Award.

Avista denied Revett Mining Company’s plan “as proposed” to lay a pipeline to carry discharge from their proposed Rock Creek mine tailings impoundment across Avista land and spray fluids into the reservoir’s water through a series of nozzles. Discharge from tailings slurry is saturated with nitrates used in blasting, flocculants added during the milling process and heavy metals that are naturally released when tons of rocks are pulverized. Revett was operating on the ‘dilution’ theory of pollution. Avista is spending millions to rehabilitate Bull trout and most likely doesn’t view a continuous spray of toxic fluids in their best interest. 

Nor is it in the best interests of those living downstream. Toxic discharges into the reservoir are not conducive to the continued high quality water of Lake Pend Oreille. The large energy company—operating in their own interests—is protecting resources for all of us.

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Author info

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

Tagged as:

Avista, fishery, bull trout, Cabinet Gorge, Noxon Rapids Dam, Cabinet Resource Group, Rock Creek Mine, Asarco, water quality

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