After Dumping $2 Million Into Cleanup, County Learns Its Lesson

By Beacon Staff

With about $2 million sunk into restoration work for a contamination that occurred more than a decade ago at the Flathead County landfill, administrators are working to purchase environmental insurance for the solid waste department – and prevent future clean-up costs.

“It’s insurance – until you need it it’s a waste of money, but when you do, it sure is worth it,” Dave Prunty, the county’s public works director, said. “We’ve taken a lot of steps to reduce the potential for a problem or release, but it’s still a landfill, so that potential will always be there.”

When the county landfill was built in the 1970s, its makers dug until they hit a perched aquifer roughly 50 feet down, Prunty said. “Back then, it was more of a ‘dig a hole and start tossing the garbage in’ mentality.”

About twenty years later, county officials discovered gases from the decomposing trash had made it from the perched aquifer to the area’s main aquifer almost 200 feet further down. Remediation efforts began immediately, Prunty said, including installing a landfill gas system, pumping water from the shallow aquifer around waste and regular testing by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Since the county’s general insurance doesn’t include environmental remediation, the county has spent about $2 million to correct the problem and is now testing at near-perfect rates for groundwater.

Last month, Prunty and Robin Boon, the county’s insurance agent, briefed commissioners on possible environmental insurance policies for the landfill.

“Most landfills in the U.S. absolutely have this,” Boon, who works with Western States Insurance, told the commission. “I don’t know why Montana is 20 years behind.”

While several companies refused to consider covering the county’s department either because of the past incident or lack of previous coverage, Boon said she found an “incredible deal” with Endurance Insurance. At $69,000 for three years of coverage, the Endurance plan covers the above-and-below ground fuel tanks at the landfill, the county’s dump trucks while they’re in transit and any pollution issues pre-dated to 1998. The next closest plan cost about $120,00, she said.

“Usually this type of insurance is one that sells at a hard price, but with the economy and a lot of capacity in the insurance market, it’s almost like it’s on sale,” Boon said. “It’s so affordable right now that a chance to walk into something for three years at this price is a big advantage for the county.”

Prunty said the $23,000 needed to cover this fiscal year would come from existing budget monies freed up by the gas system that was recently taken over by Flathead Electric Cooperative and some equipment purchases the department was delaying or no longer needed.

The county’s Solid Waste Board will have the final say on the insurance policy, likely addressing the issue at their next meeting Nov. 18.