'Housewife from Hell' bird-dogs a cleanup

  • Arsenic-contaminated Milltown Reservoir

    Dan Woodward/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Tina Reinicke-Schmaus of Milltown, Mont.

    Duncan Adams

One morning in a town close to Missoula, Mont., a Superfund cleanup pushed into Tina Reinicke-Schmaus' life with a backhoe. The event transformed her into a "Housewife From Hell," she jokes.

As a social-services worker, student and mother, she already had plenty to keep her busy. But soon she became the local expert on a Superfund project to clean up mining waste in the tiny town of Milltown: "Talk to Tina" is the refrain you hear when you ask what's happening.

For seven years, the Milltown cleanup muscled in on her personal life as she shepherded citizens' groups, deciphered Superfund reports, attended countless meetings and wrote editorials and radio commentaries.

Now, a decision is close: To clean, not to clean, or to somewhat clean the site. She guesses the decision will be to do nothing.

From the front stoop of her home on the shores of the Milltown Reservoir, she watches bald eagles, ospreys, blue herons and beavers. To a visitor, it appears a pristine wetlands. But beneath the shining surface of the water lie 6.5 million cubic yards of mining waste, including 620 to 2,100 tons of arsenic.

Arsenic can poison and cause cancer. Most of the arsenic here is found in a 12- to 29-foot-thick layer of sediments behind the Milltown Dam. There, the chemical leaches into the groundwater, forming an invisible "plume" that stretches at least a half mile past the Milltown Dam.

Just how far the plume stretches is hotly debated. A recent study indicates the arsenic may be spreading downriver, which could threaten the sole drinking water source for 70,000 residents in and around the city of Missoula.

Mining sediments in the reservoir are an inheritance from a time when copper was king in Montana, and the boomtown of Butte was called "the richest hill on earth." Arsenic and other heavy metals in the sediments are a byproduct of copper smelting. They swept downstream from Butte and Anaconda during the 1908 flood and arrived on the doorstep of Milltown, a blue-collar town that now numbers just 127 people. The sediments went largely unnoticed until 1981, when a routine water test found arsenic in the community's drinking water.

That pushed Milltown Reservoir, plus 120 miles of the Clark Fork River upstream and parts of Butte and Anaconda, onto the national Superfund list, making it the largest Superfund site in the country.

Tina Reinicke-Schmaus, who was a founding member of the Milltown Technical Assistance Committee (MTAC), believes she'll be working on the Milltown cleanup all her life, and that her three children will, too.

"I see my daughter, who's seven now, doing it when she's my age," she says.

Over the years, citizen activists have come and gone, lulled into apathy by hours of meetings and volumes of technical reports. Last spring, however, the pace picked up.

First, the state stunned local officials and citizen activists by announcing that it expected no cleanup at Milltown. Instead, nature will do the work, they concluded.

The state's preliminary decision came out in a report on its lawsuit against Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), which is paying the cleanup bill for the Superfund site.

Then a study released this spring showed arsenic contaminating wells seven miles downriver from Milltown, in Hellgate Canyon, the threshold to Missoula. This study also found that Milltown's polluted aquifer is directly linked to Missoula's aquifer. The arsenic and heavy-metals concentration in the Milltown part of the aquifer averages nearly 300 times greater than what would occur naturally in the groundwater.

These events unfolded just as the Environmental Protection Agency narrowed its list of options for Milltown. Remaining choices range from doing nothing to a "Cadillac" treatment of sediment removal with daily pumping and treating of up to 40 million gallons of groundwater. An August EPA report estimates costs from just $280,000 to $583 million.

Meanwhile, the new Congress is in the process of slashing EPA's budget. Faced with the possibility that the wastes could be left in place for centuries, Missoula city and county government officials have demanded some cleanup.

However, several scientific experts say not to worry: Most of the arsenic is stable, chemically locked to the reservoir sediments. There it is gradually being diluted by huge volumes of water from the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers.

One of these scientists, University of Montana geology professor Johnnie Moore, says that a cleanup would destroy the reservoir wetlands and release toxic amounts of copper, zinc and cadmium into the aquifer.

Moore urges looking at Milltown in the context of the whole basin. "Milltown is an extremely small percent of the area of land that is contaminated, compared to what's upstream," he says.

"Some people still have the view that technology can fix this - if we dump enough money in this, we can make this drainage healthy and put it back like it was," he says.

"I think future generations are going to have to deal with metals in this basin for thousands of years," Moore adds. "That's the price you pay for this type of large-scale mining."

Peter Nielsen, environmental health supervisor for the Missoula City-County Health Department, disagrees. He sees no reason to wait for nature or for science. He says that existing technologies can do the job.

Leaving the waste in place would make the reservoir a repository, Nielsen says. This option does not meet EPA's cleanup objective of returning groundwater to a beneficial use within a reasonable period of time. Hundreds or thousands of years, he contends, is not a reasonable amount of time.

There's adequate technology for diverting the river flow and for removing much of the arsenic from the sediments, rather than pumping and cleaning huge volumes of groundwater, he says. "Engineers built the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River," he points out. "They were able to do engineering feats much harder than this."

ARCO would prefer the sediments stay where they are behind the Milltown Dam, says Sandy Stash, ARCO's facility manager for Montana.

ARCO inherited its mess, becoming responsible for this complex of Superfund sites after purchasing the Anaconda Company in 1977.

Given the new, non-regulatory mood in Congress, Reinicke-Schmaus fears that Superfund will be cut back so far that it won't have any clout with polluters.

"I don't necessarily advocate a full cleanup out here because I don't know if that's the best thing," she says. "But what I think is wrong is letting ARCO's pocketbook determine what they're doing in the state of Montana."

"After 14 years and $6 million spent on studies, not a drop of water or an ounce of soil has been cleaned at Milltown," says Steve Blodgett, the former technical advisor for the Milltown citizens' group. He predicts the wastes will be left in place at Milltown, and questions the type of Superfund cleanup that has turned waste dumps into golf courses and theme parks: "Is it acceptable to let the world get dirtier and just leave it there?"

This is "cat box reclamation," he contends. "You just bury the waste and let your grandchildren deal with it when it washes out of here."

A more detailed analysis of cleanup choices is due this winter from the EPA.

Marga Lincoln is a freelance writer in Missoula, Montana.

For more information on the Milltown Superfund site, call Tina Reinicke-Schmaus, 406/258-6244, or Russ Forba, EPA Project Manager, 406/449-5720.

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