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By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian But some say dam should stay put

A county health officer cautioned Missoula Chamber of Commerce members Friday that they likely don't want a 94-year-old dam sitting seven miles upstream, blocking bull trout, releasing surges of heavy metals during floods, owned and operated by a long-distance telephone company.

Peter Nielsen, an environmental health officer at the Missoula City-County Health Department, said the case for taking a serious look at dismantling Milltown Dam got stronger this week when Montana Power Co. announced that it wants out of the power distribution business - so it can concentrate on telecommun-ications.

"It's time to add it up, to look at the economics of Milltown Dam and to look seriously at the option of dam removal," Nielsen said during a two-hour program at the Chamber of Commerce. "For a long time, I wasn't convinced that dam removal was the right idea. I'm still not entirely convinced, but I do believe we need to look at it carefully."

Nielsen told chamber members that much has changed at Milltown in recent years, beginning with the pulse of heavy metals sent downstream when ice jams broke on the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers in February 1996, forcing dam operators to quickly release water from Milltown Reservoir.

The reservoir holds an estimated 6.6 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated with arsenic and heavy metals washed downstream over the past century from mines and smelters in Butte and Anaconda. It sits at the endpoint of the nation's largest Superfund cleanup site.

Before the ice floe, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was ready to leave the reservoir sediments - and the dam - in place. Afterwards, Superfund managers agreed to further studies of the reservoir's potential for harming fish populations when sediments wash over the dam. (The summer after the ice floe, fish biologists could not find enough juvenile trout to sample in some river reaches downstream.)

Then, Nielsen said, Montana Power Co. sold all its other hydroelectric dams. (No one wanted Milltown.) Then the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reclassified Milltown as a high-hazard dam. Then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added bull trout to the endangered species list, and said the dam was "taking" bull trout by blocking their spawning migration.

Then, last December, Montana Power told FERC that it does not want to continue generating electricity at Milltown.

"Chances are, that dam will be removed at some point in the future," Nielsen said Friday. "We need to put our minds to understanding how that work could best be achieved with the least impact to the groundwater and the river."

Others at Friday's meeting, however, spoke in favor of keeping the dam and reservoir in place. Al Bellusci of the Bonner Development Group said the state should buy Milltown Dam and build a research facility at the reservoir. The metals in the reservoir sediments, he said, "are eating themselves up" - in part because of electrification from the power plant's generators.

Robin Bullock, Milltown project manager for Atlantic Richfield Co., added that there is nothing unsafe about the dam. It can be renovated, both to meet FERC's concerns and to allow for the passage of bull trout, she said.

To remove the dam, Bullock said, would mean hauling at least 150,000 truckloads of contaminated sediment to the BFI landfill in Missoula. "Those sediments would have to go somewhere within a 10-mile radius," she said. "They would have to stay in Missoula County."

Bullock said Montana Power Co. and Arco - which is responsible for the Superfund cleanup - are working together "to see who would be the best long-term manager for Milltown Dam, since neither one of us are in that business."

Montana Power Co. did not have a representative at the chamber meeting. However, a company spokesman said later that MPC will try to sell Milltown Dam as part of its energy assets.

"We are cognizant that a lot of people think that dam ought to come out," said Jim Williams, president of Continental Energy Services, a subsidiary of MPC. "But there are a lot of issues we must look at before that decision is made - particularly regarding the announcement this week, because whoever purchases the energy assets of Montana Power will want a voice in that decision."

Williams conceded that the company may not be able to find a buyer for Milltown, which would leave Touch America - MPC's telecommunications arm - owning and operating the facility.

"We have not decided yet whether we would want to remove the dam or keep it," Williams said. "There is a lot of work to do before we can make that decision."

In the meantime, he said, "we are charging forward. It's a separation strategy, not a going-out-of-business sale. We are moving forward with projects at Milltown, and we have an obligation to the shareholders to continue to create value. Montana Power Co. owns Milltown Dam, and we will continue to deal with Milltown. It is business as usual."

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