During his last week in office, Gov. Brian Schweitzer put a final OK to spending millions of dollars repairing mining damage in the Clark Fork River basin.
“We were tickled when the framework got adopted, and now we’re glad the money plan is there to go with it,” Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said of the state Natural Resource Damage Program plan. The budget includes about $2.4 million for work at the future Milltown State Park where the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers meet east of Missoula.
The money comes from a settlement between the state and Arco over responsibility for mining waste that washed into the Clark Fork from smelters at Butte and Anaconda over the past century. A huge flood in 1908 sent millions of tons of toxic sediment down the drainage. Much of it settled behind the former Milltown Dam, prompting a Superfund cleanup of the old reservoir there.
But deposits, known as slickens, remain in numerous places along the river between Warm Springs and Garrison. In addition, the mining waste polluted most of the local drinking water sources for Butte and Anaconda.
The money goes to two plans. The Final Upper Clark Fork River Basin Aquatic and Terrestrial Resources Restoration Plan will spend about $46 million on water projects and $20 million on land projects in the river basin between Warm Springs and Missoula.
The Butte Area One Final Restoration Plan allocates $32 million to repair surface and groundwater problems in and around Butte. The city’s main underground aquifer was ruined by mining waste, forcing residents to pipe water from as far as the Big Hole River.
It took about four years of negotiations among state, county and local agencies and groups to sort out how the money would get spent. And before that, the state ran an annual grant program spending interest from the lawsuit settlement in what Chris Brick of the Clark Fork Coalition called “random acts of restoration.”
“Now we’re deciding how to spend the money in an intentional way to restore the basin,” Brick said. “Now we’ll start to dip into the principle, and spend bulk of it in the next 20 years.”
Instead of one-year grants, the final plans allow for bigger projects such as upgrading irrigation ditches near Deer Lodge that currently leak huge amounts of water. It will also allow the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to make improvements to many tributary streams where Clark Fork fish spawn.
The terrestrial part of the plan pays for wildlife habitat work that replaces areas ruined by mine works. That includes money for conservation easements or acquisitions of wildlife migration corridors and some clean-up efforts.
About 10 percent of Clark Fork funds can be used for recreational purposes. That’s where the Milltown money comes from, along with $1 million for new fishing access sites and more than $3 million for park improvements in Deer Lodge, Drummond and Anaconda.
Plans for the Milltown park are nearly complete, but FWP Parks Director Chas Van Genderen said work can’t begin until some access issues get resolved. The most likely route to the new park goes through property owned by International Paper, and the state hasn’t finished inspecting it for potential hazardous waste deposits.
“That’s what’s slowing us down,” Van Genderen said Wednesday. “Unless we have secure public access, we shouldn’t spend any money developing the site. We understand the public’s desire to get in there and fulfill the dream of what Milltown can be.”
Van Genderen said a proposal to open the Clark Fork River by Milltown could go before the FWP Board of Commissioners next month. The confluence of both rivers has remained closed since the dam and reservoir were removed in 2008 because of construction concerns. Now that work on the Clark Fork portion has finished and revegetation efforts have had time to take root, that reach could return to public access this summer.
However, the Blackfoot still has several serious safety problems. The worst is a pair of poorly designed bridge piers where Interstate 90 crosses the Blackfoot just above its mouth. The piers fill most of the channel and cause so much turbulence in high water, even professional water rescue teams have difficulty getting through.
In addition, what’s left of a smaller dam by the old lumber mill, between the interstate and the Weigh Station river access, presents another boating hazard on the Blackfoot. The plan provided $50,000 to finish removing that dam and some of the old logs and sawmill parts that the riverbed has released since Milltown Dam was removed.