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HELENA - On Nov. 11, 1998, an equipment malfunction caused the Montana Sulphur and Chemical Co. plant in Billings to release nearly 14 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air during a 2 1/2-hour period.

Near Cut Bank on March 10, 2002, vandals turned loose railroad cars that derailed into a building containing batteries and caused abouts six gallons of acid to leak into the ground.

Those were two of more than 300 suspected or actual unauthorized spills, discharges and releases of pollution in Montana reported over the past five years to a national clearinghouse maintained by the federal government.

An Associated Press review of the National Response Center's database shows a wide variety in the types of spills and releases reported - from seemingly insignificant releases of hair spray to tens of thousands of gallons of ethanol. In about six of every 10 incidents, the chemical or substance reached a body of water, usually a nearby river or stream, the analysis found.

The National Response Center bills itself as "the sole point of contact" for reporting chemical, radiological or biological discharges into the environment "anywhere in the United States and its territories." It operates around the clock and is funded by several federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

Jim Knoy, emergency planning response manager at the EPA's regional office in Denver, said requiring reports to the center ensures the appropriate federal agencies can be involved, the responsible party is held accountable and the cleanup is done properly.

"It's so we can bring in everyone who needs to be brought in," he said.

Montana had 339 incidents reported from 1998 through 2002. Owners, operators or managers of companies responsible for a spill are required to notify the center of incidents in which a reportable quantity is released. But anyone can report a release, and private citizens or local fire departments are often sources, Knoy said.

The database contains reports of an estimated 673,000 gallons and 51 tons of various pollutants reaching the air, soil or water of the state. The annual number of reports from Montana remained fairly constant over the period, ranging from 59 to 76.

Equipment failure was most often blamed for spills or discharges, accounting for one of every 10 incidents. Operator error was blamed in about 11 percent of the cases, while intentional dumping of a pollutant occurred about 5 percent of the time.

Transportation accidents - usually crashes of trucks carrying some material or spilling its fuel - accounted for 3.5 percent of the incidents, and "natural phenomena" was cited in 3 percent. Criminal intent was the cause in seven cases, or about 2 percent.

A death was associated with three reports. Two were truck crashes near Billings and Kalispell and the third was a tavern fire sparked by a leaking gas line.

A dozen incidents involved injuries, 11 had accompanying fires and seven required some kind of evacuations, if even from a building.

However, some reports made to the center turn out to be unfounded.

For example, a caller in May 2001 claimed 100-150 barrels of motor oil were buried at the north end of Butte's Berkeley Pit.

Mike Zimmerman, the EPA on-scene coordinator who handled the case, said officials never could verify the existence of the barrels.

"We lacked enough factual evidence to go forward on that spill report," he said. "We contacted the person who reported it and tried to set up a site visit to pinpoint where the drums were supposedly buried. But the person failed to recall where the drums were put or was acting on unfounded information."

The reports chronicle a wide variety of spills, from severe to innocuous.

At one extreme was:

- The September 1999 discharge of 75,000 gallons of chlorinated water from a treatment plant in British Columbia, caused by a power outage. It made the list because the water went into the Kootenai River and was carried across the border into Montana.

- The release of 33,000 gallons of methanol from a storage tank at a Billings business formerly known as HCI Dyce Chemical in July 2000. Equipment failure was the listed cause, but the fuel was trapped in a containment area and never reached water.

Among the more minor incidents reported:

- The release of hair spray after it ignited when used too close to a water heater in a Laurel home in May 1989.

- Four drops of oil that fell into the Yellowstone River while an Exxon refinery worker was lubricating machinery gates in May 1999.

Not all incidents were accidents or wrongdoing.

One caller reported state workers emptying barrels of pesticide into a lake near Eureka. It turned out to be Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees legally poisoning fish in Therriault Lake while preparing to restock it with rainbow and cutthroat trout.

The range of materials dumped or leaked covers the gamut from corn and tires to sulfuric acid and gasoline. Emissions from four oil refineries in Billings, Laurel and Great Falls represented a fifth of the incidents.

Overall, oil in various forms was the most common substance reported. It was reported in 144, or 42 percent, of the incidents and the releases totaled an estimated 200,000 gallons. Diesel fuel, crude oil and heating fuel oil accounted for nearly a fourth of the spills.

Knoy said oil spills of any size into water must be reported, but the other substances have a variety of minimum amounts that trigger reporting.

In one of five cases, officials did not know how much pollutant had been released and 45 reports listed no responsible party.

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Ed Thamke, who handles complaint management for the state Department of Environmental Quality, said his office usually hears about incidents before being notified by the center. That's because many events also have to be reported to the state.

The party responsible for a release has the duty to report it and clean it up, and the department shares with EPA the job of making sure the cleanup is done properly, he said. "Most industries have ethics to proceed with cleanup. The state provides compliance assistance along the way."

Sometimes nothing needs to be cleaned up, such as a "burp of emissions" from a plant stack, Thamke said. In those cases, the state works with the business to make sure the problem is fixed and doesn't occur again, he said.

"The immediate priority is to get the environment cleaned up, then assess what caused it," Thamke said.

Knoy said the response center relies heavily on self-reporting by industry and most are conscientious about notification because they do not want to get punished for failing to call. Officials encourage reporting by state and local governments to ensure incidents aren't missed, he said.

But the EPA is not so naive as to believe everything is reported, he added. "There are a lot of spills that happen that we don't hear about."

About 44 percent of the releases reported in Montana over the five years involved pollution in the ground. Twenty-eight percent were substances in the water and 19 percent were discharges into the air.

The severity of a release depends on the amount of material involved or the toxicity, Knoy said. Gasoline and anhydrous ammonia are considered particularly dangerous, he said.

Thamke said reports filed with the center offer a good picture of "unauthorized pollution" in the state, but they don't include violations of government-issued permits for discharges into air and water.

Lori Hanson, special agent in charge of the EPA's regional office of criminal investigation in Denver, said penalties for unauthorized pollution typically range from two to five years in prison and $50,000 per day.

However, criminal prosecutions are reserved for incidents involving deliberate releases, she said. Accidents are more likely to prompt civil or administration action.

Only a small percentage of cases reported to the center are investigated as possible criminal matters, although the EPA doesn't keep statistics on that, Hanson said.

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