DEQ responds to commissioners' letter

Editor | October 13, 2020 7:00 AM

Department of Environmental Quality officials responded to a letter drafted by the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners last month opposing the demolition of the Rainy Creek Dam in quick time.

“That’s the fastest they’ve ever responded to anything,” said County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1), announcing receipt of the letter during an Oct. 7 board meeting.

In it, DEQ Director Shaun McGrath thanked the commissioners for weighing in on the deliberations surrounding the future of the former W.R. Grace mine site. He also sought to reassure the commissioners that both they and residents could comment on any plans for the location, which is known as Operable Unit 3 of the Libby and Troy Asbestos Superfund sites, as they become available.

“DEQ … assures the Lincoln County community and Montana citizens that the state’s position will be transparent when cleanup options and a preferred remedial alternative are presented by the EPA as part of the proposed plan,” McGrath wrote. “At such time, the public will have options for input and be able to submit comments for consideration.”

Much longer by comparison, the missive originally sent by Lincoln County commissioners called on the state agency and EPA to find a solution for the site that met series of local requests. Chief among them was retaining the Rainy Creek Dam, also known as the Kootenai Development Impoundment Dam.

Built to hold back asbestos-laden tailings, the structure is currently undergoing renovation work expected to run between $50 and $100 million. Grace, which is overseeing the project, expects the project to take several years to complete.

The future of the dam prompted the commissioners’ original missive. Peck announced in late September that EPA and DEQ officials were contemplating removing the structure and replacing it with several new dams closer to the top of Vermiculite Mountain.

Doing so could expose the Kootenai River to the material the dam has held back for years, Peck warned. County Commissioner Jerry Bennett worried construction and demolition work could kick contaminated material up into the air.

Both raised concerns that future erosion could lead to hazardous material flowing into the nearby river.

Their letter — dated Oct. 5, but publicized at a Sept. 30 board meeting — stressed the possible harm removing the dam could do to Libby and Lincoln County.

“We do not support removal of the dam,” the letter reads. “A project of that magnitude will create colossal exposure risks and leave the Kootenai River vulnerable to the threat of a major spill.”

The letter also called on state and federal officials to manage water runoff from the site, limit construction activity there, create an interagency fire response plan, and develop a public outreach and education campaign focused on site. The letter also calls for any natural resource damage dollars recovered from Grace to be spent in Lincoln County.

“The successful mitigation and long-term management of the … mine site is paramount to the quality of life and economic vitality of the Libby area and Lincoln County,” the letter reads.

In his response, McGrath wrote that his agency shared many of the same goals as the board of commissioners, including the “protection of human health and the environment.” He estimated that a feasibility study for the site, which includes remedial plans, could be finished by 2022.

While local officials have a say in other portions of the decades-long effort to mitigate vermiculite mining in Lincoln County, negotiations for a solution to the mine site remain between state and federal agencies. Grace remains the responsible party for the site.

“DEQ encourages the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners to continue to provide input during public involvement opportunities in accordance with the Superfund process,” McGrath wrote.