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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
see my daughter, who's seven now, doing it when she's my age," she
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."
detailed analysis of cleanup choices is due this winter from the
Lincoln is a freelance writer in Missoula,
For more information on the Milltown
Superfund site, call Tina Reinicke-Schmaus, 406/258-6244, or Russ
Forba, EPA Project Manager,