Auditors Criticize Montana Superfund Work

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A new audit finds fault with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s work in the state Superfund program, which manages environmental cleanup.

The department lacks money for adequate remediation at places that may pose a significant threat to human health or the environment, according to the audit, which cited groundwater pollution at some Billings, Helena, Kalispell and Bitterroot Valley locations. The audit also found inadequate guidance of personnel.

“There are highly contaminated sites where the department either has not performed a complete investigation to identify responsible parties, where through investigation has been unable to identify responsible parties, or where parties are unable or unwilling to conduct or pay for remediation,” says the audit presented Monday to the Environmental Quality Council, a panel of legislators.

The council examined the report three weeks after another group of lawmakers considered a separate audit that found DEQ seriously behind in processing applications for permits to operate gravel pits.

In a phone interview after Monday’s meeting, DEQ Director Richard Opper acknowledged there are contaminated places that go without the agency’s attention and may pose health or environmental risks.

“Some sites we just don’t know enough about because we don’t have adequate resources to address the threat,” Opper said.

The audit found “a disconnect” between DEQ’s Superfund obligations and what it has been able to accomplish with available money, said Kent Rice of the Legislative Audit Division.

Rice said a major problem is that a leading source of money for the state Superfund program, the parties responsible for the pollution or other environmental harm, in some cases have not paid the cleanup bills. Bankruptcies are among the circumstances.

Opper said DEQ focuses its attention on sites where the probability of recovering expenses is high, and sidelines the others.

The auditors’ recommendations include a call for DEQ to firm up a policy for taking legal action in cases of nonpayment. The auditors also recommend DEQ determine how state law should be changed to enhance the agency’s ability to recover costs.

The cost recovery at places where Superfund work was undertaken has improved, according to the audit. It found that 65 percent of state Superfund expenses were recovered from responsible parties in 2005, and 78 percent in 2006. Preliminary indications are that cost recovery was around 97 percent last year.

Opper said such reimbursements are the only source of ongoing revenue to sustain cleanup work in the Superfund program. At times, however, the Legislature has allocated one-time-only funds for certain projects.

The audit also found the Superfund program “appears to have little management guidance for staff to develop and implement a work plan of action. There are goals and objectives from the Remediation Division, but it is unclear how these are measured to track and document work progress.”

There is an annual work plan, but apparently no long-term plan “outlining where the Remediation Division is, where they would like to be, what is realistic and the resources needed to achieve site remediation,” the audit said.

Responding to a question from lawmakers about management of the division, its administrator, Sandi Olsen, said progress was being made.

Opper, who said he welcomed the audit, told the council that some people incorrectly view DEQ as a department in disarray. The agency has had some difficulty getting its work done with inadequate resources, but improvements are being made, he said.