Once Again, a River Will Run Through It - EPA proposes tearing down the Milltown Dam in Montana

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 16, 2003; Page A03

MISSOULA, Mont., April 15 -- When he campaigned for the presidency three years ago, George W. Bush stood foursquare for the virtues of dams in the Pacific Northwest.

"These dams are important for a way of life," he said, referring to hydroelectric dams on the Snake River. "If George W. Bush becomes president, the dams will not be breached."

The Bush administration, however, today proposed breaching a hydroelectric dam near here at the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers, just a couple of hundred miles from the Snake.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced that it wants to tear down the Milltown Dam, which for nearly a century has been trapping toxins from upstream mining and holding them in a reservoir that poisons the groundwater and kills fish.

The announcement marks a rare -- and probably temporary -- truce in a wide-ranging legislative and legal war between the Bush administration and environmental groups over water, timber and energy policy across the West.

"The Bush administration is doing the right thing here," said Tracy Stone-Manning, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition, an environmental group that has campaigned for three years for removal of the dam. The project is expected to cost $95 million and take six years.

The EPA was quick to insist that removal of the Milltown Dam, which produces barely enough power to light up the public schools in Missoula, will not set a precedent for removal of larger dams that environmentalists want breached to save endangered salmon.

"This is a completely different situation," said Russ Forba, EPA manager for the Milltown project. "This is not analogous to the dams on the lower Snake River. They are big energy producers and it was pretty self-evident to everyone back in headquarters in Washington that this was not a major energy producer."

More, perhaps, than any dam in the West, the Milltown has become a structure that Republicans at the national and state level can comfortably hate.

Joining the Bush administration, the Republican governor of Montana, Judy Martz, who once described herself as the "lapdog of industry," said that the dam must go because "it's simply the right thing to do."

In a recent visit to Missoula, Martz suggested that there are higher powers -- and not just in Washington -- on the side of breaching the dam and removing toxins behind it.

"God has a plan, too," she said. "We have to help Him by cleaning up the sediment. Then He will do the rest."

Politically, the dam has become hugely unpopular in western Montana. Arsenic levels in groundwater behind the dam are 42 times higher than federal standards and have forced the EPA to provide alternative safe drinking water to 40 households near the dam.

Heavy metals in the mud behind the dam, especially copper, periodically foul the gills of fish, causing them to drown. When an ice flow stirred up sediment in the mid-1990s, trout numbers fell by about 60 percent. With no fish ladders, the dam also blocks migration routes for bull trout, a fish listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Blackfoot River, which spills into the Clark Fork just above the dam, is "the big river" of rainbow and brown trout that Norman Maclean celebrated in his paean to fly fishing, "A River Runs Through It."

In Missoula County, which has a population of 90,000, more than 10,000 people have written to the EPA, demanding that the dam be breached and nearby contaminates removed.

What makes removal of the dam especially appealing to politicians and local taxpayers is that they don't have to pay for it. The project will create many as 160 jobs for six years, providing a much-needed annual injection of $14 million into the local economy.

Under the Superfund law, which requires polluters to pay the cost of cleaning up their own environmental messes, most of the $95 million tab will be picked up by Atlantic Richfield Co. In 1977, it bought Anaconda Mining, the company that salted the Clark Fork with contaminants from huge upstream processing plants and mines in Anaconda and Butte.

Not surprisingly, Atlantic Richfield, which was bought three years ago by British Petroleum Co., is the only major player in Montana that opposes breaching the dam. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up Superfund sites on the Clark Fork.

"We continue to have concern that removal will do more harm than good," said Sandy Stash, an Atlantic Richfield spokeswoman. "You will be mining contaminated material in the middle of the river and in our opinion that will pose some risks to the ecosystem."

Stash, too, noted that breaching the dam does not seem to square with President Bush's energy policies.

"This dam removal is counter to what we have seen in other places in the Northwest," she said.

Atlantic Richfield's isolation on the issue, however, is so complete that even the company that owns the dam, NorthWestern Energy, wants it breached. NorthWestern acquired the dam last year, when it bought out part of Montana Power, the dam's longtime owner.

"It is an old dam, it is not generating a lot of power and it would cost money to upgrade up," said Todd Williams, a consultant for NorthWestern Energy, based in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Federal law, thanks to a rider inserted by Montana's congressional delegation, appears to protect the dam's owner from paying more than $10 million on the removal project, although Atlantic Richfield disputes this.

With today's announcement, it now seems almost certain that the dam will be gone within 10 years. By then, according to the EPA, which plans to haul contaminated mud out of the riverbed and put it in a nearby landfill, arsenic levels in nearby groundwater will quickly become safe.

The number of trout in the rivers behind the dam is also expected to recover to levels not seen since 1907, when the dam was built to power lumber mills supplying timber to upstream mines.

The executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition said she is stunned by how quickly politicians have turned against the dam.

"Three years ago," Stone-Manning said, "this was just a gleam in our eye."


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