Missoula, Butte Jostle Over Resource Damage Funds

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – A group that will allocate mine cleanup funds in southwestern Montana is hearing arguments over how the money should be divvied up.

The Natural Resource Damage Advisory Council has drafted a plan to spend 36 percent of the money on groundwater damage, 39 percent for aquatic damage and 25 percent for terrestrial damage in the Upper Clark Fork River basin, which is now the largest Superfund site in the country.

The $100 million from lawsuit settlements have been set aside for restoration work in the basin, which extends from Butte to Missoula.

The council is hearing public comments for the plan until Nov. 30, according to the Missoulian. Most of the 70 responses liked the plan, but Missoula and Butte each raised some concerns.

Butte-Silver Bow planning director John Sesso said he found it presumptuous to think the lion’s share of the $100 million shouldn’t be spent closer to Butte, where most of the damage occurred.

“The facts are that seven of the nine restoration claims are from Warm Springs Pond up,” Sesso said. “It’s disingenuous to hear Missoula say we should spent more money downstream.”

Officials in Missoula, meanwhile, want Butte to use the $35 million in so-called Silver Bow Creek remainders on environmental work, “before they go and do other things like economic development or historical interpretation centers,” said Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss. “Otherwise, they’ll come back and say we still have these injured areas that need to come back to the big pot.”

Sesso said the Silver Bow Creek money was dedicated to fix problems close to Butte and residents don’t see the repair project as being limited to fixing environmental damage.

“A number of our historic resources had to be removed to accommodate the environmental remediation,” he said. “If this community chooses to spend some of its resources on cultural resources, that’s a choice they ought to be allowed to make.”

He said such project won’t be a big part of the spending, but he says a children’s fishing pond is receiving support “because we can’t fish yet in Silver Bow Creek.”

The advisory council’s draft plan would severely restrict the use of natural resource damage funding on recreational projects.

As it is written, the plan would concentrate spending on aquatic and terrestrial repair work, so something like improving fish habitat likely would be approved, while building a fishing access site would face more scrutiny.

A proposal to build a pedestrian bridge across the Clark Fork River at Milltown might not pass muster.

“Maybe that Milltown bridge is not viewed as something that would complement restoration,” said Peter Nielsen, Missoula County’s environmental health supervisor.

But he noted there have been proposals for museums and park projects miles away from the Clark Fork, as well as other things that aren’t intended to repair a century’s worth of mining and smelting damage.

“There’ve been a lot of projects funded that really haven’t benefited restoration at sites where injury occurred,” Nielsen said.