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Summer Cleanup and a Design Review Team for the Clark Fork River

March 15, 2010

A design review team soon will be established to offer stakeholders and the public an opportunity to weigh in on the Upper Clark Fork River Superfund cleanup, which state officials say will begin in Deer Lodge this summer.

That was one of the outcomes of a recent meeting with agencies and public stakeholders to discuss the progress of the river cleanup. On Feb. 23 a CFRTAC meeting in Helena convened the Environmental Protection Agency, the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality and the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program, agency consultants, the Opportunity Citizens Protection Association, the Clark Fork Coalition, and several CFRTAC board members.

The meeting had been organized because state agencies and the EPA seemed to be at an impasse over a debate on project design issues. CFRTAC board president Kathy Hadley, who, with her husband Wayne, owns a small ranch along the Clark Fork, expressed frustration with the inaction along the Clark Fork. She encouraged them to listen to the science and move forward, move forward quickly. "The governor and president talk about green jobs - we've got a $100 million in the bank. Let's get going," she said.

But first the state agencies and the EPA must resolve some key differences of opinion on the cleanups' design and data collection issues. The state is designated the cleanup's lead but the EPA plays an oversight role. At issue is whether the EPA's Riparian Evaluation System (RipES) is the be-all and end-all for the design, as determined by the Clark Fork's 2004 Record of Decision, or whether it's one tool of several in designing river cleanups.

RipES was collaboratively developed by the EPA and its consultants from industry and academia and is under consideration for use by other EPA region on mine waste cleanups. In 2006-07, the EPA and its contractors used RipES to assess the first 46 miles of the Clark Fork's floodplain and 116 streambank miles. The system divides the site into polygons and looks at the stability of streambanks, the extent of exposed tailings, known as slickens, and also the area of impacted and slightly impacted soils and vegetation. RipES is also a tool for identifying field data gaps needed for individual cleanup designs.

Subsequent sampling by the state in 2009, the DEQ has found contamination more widespread than predicted under RipES, particularly in the depth of the contamination. In the uppermost 3.5 miles of river, 250 test pits were dug, revealing contamination more than six feet deep in some places.

The difference between the EPA and the DEQ's sampling is important: How the agencies test will determines what it will find, and consequently how much it will remove. But there isn't enough funding to remove all the contamination from the floodplain, which even if there were, it could possibly jeopardize the serpentine river's channel stability.

The DEQ will continue to sample through 2010, but in the meantime it has also developed a design for the start of the cleanup in Deer Lodge at the Trestle, a railroad crossing over the Clark Fork River in the community that sees a lot of foot traffic. The DEQ and EPA are discussing the design and have differences over the amount to be removed and protection structures such as log cribs. "There are still a lot of factors in this design that need to be worked out," said the DEQ's Brian Bartkowiak.

"We're working through those issues right now," said EPA's Montana Superfund program manager Joe Vranka. "Our goal is the same as yours, to get some construction, to get some things implemented."

DEQ Director Richard Opper said starting the cleanup is a "huge priority" for both the EPA and DEQ. "We both recognize it's an unbelievable opportunity and want to make sure it's done right." Where feasible, he said, the agencies should err on the side of more tailings removal rather than less.

Both the state and EPA say they will resolve their differences over cleanup designs in time to have a work plan for the Trestle area in Deer Lodge, which will be implemented by late summer or early fall. "If we (the DEQ and EPA) don't' work it out, we will have failed," Opper said.

Other agency commitments that came out of that meeting:

  • Soft engineering of stream banks will be preferred over harder approaches, such as rip-rap;
  • Reach A, the very headwaters of the Clark Fork, will be cleaned up in 2011;
  • A public meeting on the cleanup will be held in the spring or summer.

In discussing cleanup designs, the agency officials were asked if there was an opportunity for public involvement. Chris Brick, science director for the Clark Fork Coalition (and a Milltown technical advisor to CFRTAC), suggested a design review team, saying part of Milltown's success thus far has been because of the design review team. And the river, compared to Milltown or even Silver Bow Creek, is a much more difficult cleanup.

Since 2005, CFRTAC has been part of the Milltown Design Review Team (DRT), a process which has allowed the public a role in the design of cleanup. The Milltown team includes representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the DEQ, NRDP, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Missoula County and CFRTAC, the latter two representing the public interest. The Milltown DRT offered comments on technical aspects of the cleanup and helped ensure integration with restoration and even redevelopment goals. The DRT meetings and monthly tours also provided CFRTAC and Missoula County opportunities to share information with the public.

Agency officials, from the DEQ, NRDP and EPA, agreed to the idea and said the DEQ will propose the workings later this spring. Visit cfrtac.org for details as they emerge.

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