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Christiansen shares struggles with county

| March 18, 2004 11:00 PM

By Brent Shrum, Western News Reporter

In a meeting aimed at clearing the air between county and federal officials, local Superfund project manager Jim Christiansen gave the Lincoln County Commissioners a look into his continuing struggles with funding shortages and a pressure to show results.

³I¹ve heard that you guys have lost faith in me or the EPA, and I don¹t want that to be the case,² Christiansen told the commissioners during Wednesday¹s meeting at the county annex in Eureka.

Invited to bring up any issues the commissioners wanted to discuss, Commissioner John Konzen asked Christiansen how much authority he actually has in managing the cleanup of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in the Libby area.

³How much is coming down to you that you have to carry out and be the messenger?² Konzen asked.

Christiansen said he has a lot of leeway to do his job but that he does have to work within some constraints and follow some general directives from above.

³Are people telling me what to do? Sometimes, but not that often,² he said. ³Not in the day-to-day operation of things.²

No one specifically told him to cut wages for the cleanup, Christiansen said, bringing up a recent controversy that drew in the commissioners after they received complaints from angry workers. Christiansen said he made the decision on his own as a reaction to the pressure to get the cleanup done quickly and to criticism from headquarters over requests for additional funding.

Konzen implied that EPA assistant administrator Marianne Horinko may be reneging on her promises to the Libby community. Christiansen countered that Horinko¹s view on the issue is more likely one of concern over whether or not the agency is getting its money¹s worth, considering it spends more on Libby than on most other cleanup projects.

Christiansen said he expects to be in Washington, D.C., at least twice in the near future to brief agency officials including Horinko and EPA head Mike Leavitt on the progress of the Libby cleanup.

³Each one of them is going to want to know, why is it so hard, why is it so expensive, why is it so different,² Christiansen said.

He said he is still working to accurately convey the complicated nature of the project to EPA higher-ups.

³I just have to keep fighting that battle, and I think I¹m going to end up getting more money for Libby because it¹s the right thing,² he said.

In previous discussions of the high-priority nature of the Libby project, Horinko said funding might come up a little bit short but not a lot short, Christiansen said.

³Well the way we¹re going now, we¹re going to be a lot short,² he said.

Expressing concerns that the cleanup job could stretch as long as 12 years based on current funding levels, Konzen asked Christiansen about delays in lining up new contractors to keep the work moving ahead. Christiansen explained some of the difficulties in the bidding process.

³Obviously people don¹t understand the work because they¹re coming in with bids that are ridiculously low or ridiculously high,² he said.

To avoid protests, the bidders have to be given a chance to review the specifications and submit new bids, Christiansen said. As a result, contracts that he had hoped to award in March won¹t go out until late April or early May. To avoid a slowdown brought on by bringing new contractors up to speed, current contractor Salut/Marcor may be given the bulk of the cleanup job during the summer work season, Cristiansen said, with new companies not coming on-line until the fall.

Christiansen said he¹s hopeful that he¹ll see increased funding for the project next year, in part through the efforts of U.S. Sen. Max Baucus.

³I don¹t think we¹re going to be eating those 12-year timetables and things like that,² he said. ³It¹s just not right.²