The plan for $116 million in restoration money for the upper Clark Fork River won approval from its advisory committee and now awaits Gov. Brian Schweitzer's signature.
"The lawsuit against Arco was filed 28 years ago," said Peter Nielsen of the Missoula City-County Health Department. "I started working on it professionally 26 years ago. It's a good thing to see us at this place. It's not every river that gets this kind of attention put to it."
The state of Montana settled with Arco in 1999 for damages stemming from mining activity in Butte and Anaconda. Toxic tailings polluted much of those cities' water supplies and poisoned streams and rivers from Butte to Missoula. The settlement provided about $120 million for restoration. It's been earning interest ever since.
Since 2000, the Montana Natural Resource Damage Program has administered an annual grant program that's provided about $80 million of that interest money for restoration work. So while a federal Superfund settlement paid for the removal of Milltown Dam, state NRDP money covered much of the revegetation along the reservoir.
There were two problems with that approach. The annual grant process made it difficult for multi-year efforts like rebuilding Butte's water supply to get in the groove. And disagreements between representatives at the upper and lower ends of the Clark Fork's damaged area kept a more comprehensive plan from finding consensus.
The original lawsuit said 36 percent of the settlement should go to repair ruined groundwater supplies for Butte and Anaconda. Another 39 percent was to fix aquatic problems in the drainage, and 25 percent went to land-based restoration.
Those last two accounts paid for cleanup of riverbank heavy-metal deposits, the Silver Bow Creek Greenway, the Black Bridge at Milltown, and the Spotted Dog Ranch acquisition as public land to replace other public acres irreparably damaged by the mining.
"Butte-Silver Bow has reiterated consistently that resources should be spent where damages occurred," said Jon Sesso, a Butte legislator and adviser to the advisory committee that drafted the plan. "We knew the majority of the terrestrial dollars will be spent downstream from Warm Springs ponds. We think that's not fair. But on the other hand, if we can balance out priorities downstream, we wanted groundwater and aquatic work upstream."
A draft plan was released last December, but Schweitzer postponed acting on it until after the 2011 legislative session was over. His office then proposed some changes in a draft that was released in August. That version went out for public review until October, and then state NRDP staff worked up a final draft for Tuesday's meeting of the settlement trustees.
"The trustees showed a continual willingness to look at the big-basin picture, to look at what was good for the entire river and region," said Granite County Commissioner Maureen Connor, one of the plan's advisory council members. "And that's hard. We're from everywhere from Butte to Missoula. But they did it."
Assuming Schweitzer gives his OK, the final plan sets the guidelines for long-term project approval to spend the bulk of the remaining $116 million. NRDP staff will spend another two months working out the priorities for what the projects address.
While some money will be used for small projects in 2012, most will be divvied up for multi-year work plans that can be bid and put into action. And about 15 percent of the account will be held in reserve for issues that come up 10 or 20 years down the line.
The final draft also limits that spending to specific places in the drainage where mining damage has occurred, or where repair work would greatly benefit the drainage as a whole.
"We're staring at missing a construction season because we were back here dealing with this planning process," Sesso said. "This is part of the restoration economy. It's critical to all the economies of Butte, Milltown, Missoula - all along the river."