Environmentalists Ignore Problem in Own Backyard

By Beacon Staff

It’s high season for roiling, billowing and drifting dust on the North Fork Road. A low altitude flight at mid-day reveals a ribbon of dust wafting over the divinely colored waters of the North Fork River. The beauty masks the bull trout habitat being destroyed by the accumulation of barely measurable sediments. Looking east toward Glacier National Park at this altitude and angle, one can’t see the cradled alpine lakes sprinkled with deadly aluminum derived in part from wind-blown dust particles. Behind is malnourished Flathead Lake where harmful river ingredients are ultimately deposited. The pot-holed and wash-boarded road below is nearly as invisible as it is to county politicians in their indifference, ineptitude, or a combination of both, and to environmentalists with their eyes focused on north-of-the-border mining interests. Driving the road, even with the air conditioner on max, you can smell and taste the dust. Opening your windows for fresh air is foolish and unhealthy.

What is dust and where does it come from? To paraphrase, and in the interest of brevity, I will quote from an EPA manual describing a commonly accepted statement about dust as it pertains to gravel roads: “One car making one pass on one mile of dirt or gravel road one time each day for one year creates one ton of dust.” Dust is created from fines being ground down by traffic and blown off by wind and eroded by water. The above quoted statement translates to losing 50 tons of fine road material a year for each mile of road with an average of 50 vehicles per day. I’ll not bore you with the math, but the numbers are phenomenal no matter what source is used to determine traffic quantity on the North Fork Road.

Dust indicates the road is deteriorating from heavy traffic. Dust becomes additional sediment in tributary streams and the North Fork River as it pollutes the air, clings to vegetation, and increases the requirement for road maintenance as well as the costs of maintaining vehicles.

Meanwhile, as these forces and conditions are at work, it’s life, business and the pursuit of politics as usual. When a homegrown environmental problem up close and personal lacks national charisma, or the on-again-off-again drama of an international mining conglomerate threat, local environmental groups ignore the problem or pretend it doesn’t exist. Even after fairly convincing evidence proves road dust right here at home is harmful to humans and the environment, it’s more fashionable or up-scale to devote money, time and interest to the breeding vicissitudes of vicunas or the mining economy of British Columbia. County politicians continue to recite their “no money” mantra and mosey on to more interesting issues easier to resolve. One commissioner hopes “we can put the (dust study) information to good use” while another potential commissioner essentially decries the dust issue as of minor consequence after running as a “Roads and Dust” candidate. The prospects for positive action to repair a deteriorating road and to control road dust are not encouraging.

Since late 2006 when the North Fork Road Coalition for Health and Safety was initially organized, it has but one purpose and objective and that is to see road dust significantly controlled on the North Fork Road. We asked the county for two items to be addressed. One is an acknowledgement that the North Fork Road is uniquely different from county residential roads and recognition that it will require separate and special considerations to resolve road dust health and safety issues. The other item is that the county develop a specific plan dealing with how it intends to obtain funding assistance for mitigating approximately 45 miles of road dust. Neither has been addressed. We also submitted a letter to the county road committee asking that they consider the North Fork Road as a special and unique artery serving a broad group of interests using essentially the same arguments contained in pleadings to the county. Lacking even an acknowledgement, we have no idea how this committee will deliberate. Apparently the best the county could come up with is a plan inspired by threats of fines by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. The Flathead County Plan for Fugitive Road Dust contains little which would mitigate dust on the North Fork road. This agreement with DEQ has a 30 month administrative life and evidently the county intends to rely solely on this agreement and plans to do nothing more.

The situation is unacceptable to the North Fork Road Coalition for Health and Safety. The county’s intransigence mirrors over three years of ignoring DEQ directives that the county take action to reduce dust. Somewhere within Flathead County administration a mindset exists devoted to delay and obfuscation. Unfortunately for all concerned, it now seems obvious the county is unresponsive to the pleadings of the coalition’s citizens. It leaves the coalition’s supporters with little choice but to seek remedy through more responsive government resources.

Robert Grimaldi lives in Polebridge and is Chairman of the North Fork Road Coalition for Health and Safety (NFRCHS).