Council briefed on groundwater situation

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The Libby City Council heard from Lincoln County Board of Health Vice Chair George Jamison regarding the Libby Groundwater Superfund Site and the Proposed Controlled Groundwater Area during there regular meeting Tuesday night.

The area that is proposed would exceed the current boundaries of the area covered by the 1983-listed Libby Groundwater Site created to deal with contamination related to wood treatment on the south end of town.

Jamison gave an overview of the history of the site, including the 1986 Libby ordinance banning the creation of new wells within the boundaries of the site.

He discussed the upper aquifer with an ongoing remedy involving soil excavation and treatment and groundwater treatment, as well as the lower aquifer that has been assigned for long-term monitoring and institutional controls — such as the prohibition on future wells being dug.

According to the slides Jamison presented, the proposed Controlled Groundwater Area would expand similar controls to areas outside the city limits.

Jamison said that there has been discussion of International Paper paying for existing wells in the newly designated area to be plugged, as well as assistance with connection to municipal water for affected residences. However, he noted that he wants to see that in writing before he accepts it as certain.

Jamison said that the reason for the EPA wanting to implement a Controlled Groundwater Area here is related to the potential that drawing water from wells within the proposed boundaries could alter the known plume, spreading the contamination further. Ultimately, any restrictions would be with the aim of protecting human health and the environment.

Jamison’s slides noted that the boundaries of the Controlled Groundwater Area would include a “buffer zone for uncertainty.”

The total size of the proposed area would come to 1,123 acres. It would encompass historical and existing plumes, soil treatment areas, areas where pumping could move the existing plumes and the buffer zone.

Around 40 wells were plugged or abandoned in the groundwater site, Jamison said. Based on groundwater rights and well reports, it is possible that up to 50 wells could still exist within the proposed boundaries.

In response to council member Peggy Williams expressing a desire to better understand the number of wells that could exist in the area, Jamison said that the number is purely an estimate based on the available data of property owners who could have drilled a well if they desired.

If such wells exist, they also could have been drilled for non-prohibited uses such as a closed-circuit system for a heat pump.

Without a thorough and exhaustive search across every affected acre of land, it is not possible to know the exact number of wells that exist or are in use — if any — within the proposed area.

Jamison also discussed the ongoing conversation between the county health board and the EPA regarding the EPA’s request that the board serve as a petitioner for the proposed controlled area.

However, he said that while the conversation is ongoing and the EPA is open to holding community conversations about the proposal, there is no clear end in site and it is still possible the EPA could ask another entity to be the petitioner.

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