Monday Montanan: River watchdog nears retirement

Monday Montanan: River watchdog nears retirement

News Type: State Source: Missoulian
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When Peter Nielsen first appeared in the Missoulian 32 years ago, a concrete weir poked into the Clark Fork River where Brennan’s Wave kayakers now play.

Milltown Dam held back a 300-acre reservoir loaded with toxic heavy metal sediments upstream of town. A pulp mill downstream in Frenchtown had just applied for a permit to dump its wastewater into the river year-round. The shoreline through Missoula was lined with rip-rap made of rusting old cars.

“The water in this community has always been my passion,” said Nielsen, who will retire as the Missoula City-County environmental health supervisor this Friday. “I was lucky that the community wanted to do so much with water. That’s not the case in every town you work in. I managed to stick around.”

Back in 1985, Nielsen helped found the Clark Fork Coalition and became its first director. Champion International’s pulp mill wanted to release up to 20 million gallons of effluent a day into the river, and busloads of protesters were coming to lobby against the plan. That wastewater permit finally was canceled permanently in 2017, seven years after the pulp mill itself was shut down and dismantled.

“That was kind of the bookends of my career,” Nielsen said. “I did my master’s thesis on that discharge permit.”

Although Frenchtown may have been the starting point, Neilson’s focus soon turned east to Milltown. The discovery of arsenic in drinking water wells in 1981 brought U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attention to the little community.

But it wasn’t until University of Montana geology professors Johnnie Moore and Bill Woessner drilled core samples through the frozen surface of Milltown Reservoir that anyone realized the problem stemmed from a century-old flood deposit of smelter waste from Butte and Anaconda’s copper mines.

Nielsen moved to the Health Department in 1992, where he encountered a variety of other threats to Missoula’s sole-source aquifer. They ranged from large-scale pollution cleanups at the White Pine Sash property on the city’s north side to reconfiguration of a petroleum processing plant along its railroad tracks.

Milltown Dam was nearly breached by a runaway ice floe in 1996, putting new emphasis on its Superfund cleanup efforts. The dam was removed in 2008, and a new river channel and floodplain were opened in 2010.

The Frenchtown pulp mill closed that year, and talks about making it a Superfund site promptly started. The property has been recommended for EPA cleanup, but ground investigations and negotiations with responsible corporate parties continue to drag on.

 “Frenchtown will be much bigger than Milltown,” Nielsen said. “It’s got more than 1,000 acres of restorable floodplain, compared to Milltown’s 300 acres. It’s along 4 miles of riverbank. Its dumps would cover the entire University of Montana campus and lots of the residential area surrounding it, and it was unregulated for 53 years. We don’t get those opportunities every day.”