By Dallas D. Erickson, Stevensville
There was a hearing on Thursday, May 10 at the Ravalli County Commission Office seeking approval for new Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) By-Laws.
Why are we here? (Here meaning considering By-Laws for LEPC). Why are we discussing LEPC? What is an LEPC and why the law?
During the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, a Union Carbide plant in a village just south of Bhopal, India released approximately 40 tons of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) into the air. Used in the manufacture of pesticides, MIC is a lethal chemical. The gas quickly and silently diffused over the ground and, in the end, killed, by some estimates, upwards of 5,000 people and injured 50,000 more. Congress passed EPCRA in response to that tragedy. Within the year, a similar but less serious accident occurred in Institute, West Virginia. The disorganized response of local authorities prompted further calls for systematic planning in anticipation of such incidents. Those in support of such planning also argued for improved disclosure to the public about the use, storage, and release of dangerous chemicals.
Sounds like what could happen if Painted Rocks Dam (or Como) was to become inundated! I can see the headlines, “Failure to plan Contributed to the Massive Loss of Life.” The past two directors of the Ravalli County Office of Emergency Management has estimated that 10,000 lives could be lost in an inundation of Painted Rocks Dam. A Como failure could have similar consequences.
The EPCRA does not require counties to have LEPCs. Only if it wants federal money. Generally, I believe conservatives at least, are opposed to government intrusion and being held hostage to their dictates because of money. However, because of the reasons this law was passed and signed by President Reagan, I think we can agree that sometimes local governments and communities must have an incentive to do what is right and to be open to the community about possible disasters and their harm and possible destruction. It is horrifying to see the negligence on the part of government and sometimes industry in neglecting to consider foremost and first the welfare of the people that live there. There has been a conspiracy of silence about the consequences of either of these dams failing (they are earthen dams) here in the Bitterroot and it doesn’t only involve the owners but also the government agencies responsible to help the community be prepared and also the media.
The only place that the issue was ever brought up in meetings open to the public was in the LEPC meetings for the past 10 years that I have been involved. However, in 2017 the Bureau of Reclamation under the Department of the Interior conducted an exercise of the Emergency Action Plan for Lake Como. I asked to participate in that and traveled to Boise, Idaho to meet with those in the Bureau that were planning the exercise (ended up being limited only to dam owners and first responders). I told them of my concerns on that dam and my feelings of the need for Early Warning Systems (EWS). I told them about my experiences in trying to discuss the issue in the Ravalli County LEPC and they told me that those things should not be discussed in an LEPC because that was only for Haz Mat issues and they assured me that they would be talking to the county OEM. They also said the EAP, including the inundations maps, were for internal use only and were not for the public to see. I advised them of the Montana Constitutional guarantee of Freedom of Information and they said they would not send them to Ravalli County if they were going to be available to the public. The Bureau did invite me to tour the dam with the press, including a reporter from this paper, during the exercise. My wife and I took them up on that. It was the second Como Dam tour that we had taken. On the first one there was a sink hole in the dam that they were just getting a handle on and that had concerned the Sheriff’s Office enough that they met with the hospital (apparently ignoring the rest homes) to advise of the danger.
During that tour on April 7, 2017, I was speaking with the OEM administrator about some of our discussions and concerns expressed in LEPC in front of the media. One of the directors of the tour from the Bureau of Reclamation told Erik that he needed to get those rules changed so dam inundation could not be discussed during the LEPC meetings. Erik nodded his head in agreement. For several months I did not get my regular notice of Ravalli County LEPC meetings and I emailed Erik and asked him to put me back on the list several times. He refused to do that. After the fact, I heard about the new “By-Laws” that were passed by a handful of LEPC members. Erik never denied these things in the hearings on the 10th.
That is the next reason we are here. It was passed on as being my fault that the LEPC meetings were suspended when in actuality the By-Laws were passed illegally.
I think it is ironic that the laws requiring LEPCs, if counties want to receive federal money, were passed because local governments and agencies and industry were in a mode of a conspiracy of silence when it came to Haz Mat issues, thus assuring that citizens would not be protected in a Haz Mat disaster and in fact many would die because of that silence. Now these new By-Laws are clearly being passed to silence those who think there is a conspiracy of silence when it involves inundation of either Painted Rocks or Como Dam. The LEPC is being changed from what it historically was to a limited committee only allowed to discuss Haz Mat issues.
The new By-Laws were approved by Chilcott, Hawk and Schallenberger, thus disallowing any discussion of any other disasters in the new LEPC. They approved By-Laws that allow no county oversight (except the commission approves changes to the By-Laws) but allows a commission appointed by the Governor to mandate its actions. Sound like a “local” committee to you? Remember, the state owns Painted Rocks Dam. The one hopeful thing is that it was pointed out there was another committee for the discussion of wildland fires and Erik said he would start a committee for the discussion of other disasters. I am not sure why we need a separate committee for every disaster.
In regard to other disasters, that will no longer even be discussed in LEPC if these By-Laws are passed. I have been shocked, as I have advocated for Early Warning Systems on Lake Como and Painted Rocks Dams, that no one in the county has even contacted the rest homes that would be so horribly affected by an inundation of either dam. None of those that we visited with even knew what the owners of the dam’s studies show, what the inundation area is! They are required by federal law to practice possible disaster scenarios in their community and to have plans to save their clients. The first question they asked us was, “Where would we take the people?” I was shocked. It was made clear to us that it would take three hours for most of the rest homes to evacuate their residents. The assisted living establishments could have their people out of the buildings in an hour, but it would take another hour or so to take them (where?) to the place of evacuation.
The hospital indicated that it would take at least an hour to evacuate. Where would they take their patients? The hospital said they had been contacted once by the Sheriff’s Office about getting ready to evacuate and shown the old EAP and inundation map for only Como. That was the same year we toured the dam and there was a “sink hole” on the dam that threatened it.
This is all so shocking that neither the OEM or the Sheriff nor anyone else has worked with these establishments, let alone the public and families. The EAP for Painted Rocks indicates the water would hit Hamilton five hours after an inundation. (If inundated at 11 p.m. it would hit Hamilton at 5 a.m.). The wall of water near the hospital, according to the owners of Painted Rocks, could be up to 50 feet in height! The time for travel of an inundation of Como dam is about an hour and it would destroy much of the same area that Painted Rocks would. Why this conspiracy of silence? Do Commissioners know of their liability? A well run truly local community planning committee could do wonders to mitigate the loss of life. And even a fool would agree that there must be Early Warning Systems on those dams.
Considering the army it would take to get those of our most helpless people evacuated from the inundation zone has convinced me that one thing that needs to be done to prepare for that possible event is to organize and get a Citizen Emergency Response Team set up in the county, trained and ready to help. The county received federal money for that team, but the money was illegally or legally appropriated for something else with the clear ‘we don’t care’ attitude about the safety of the community.
The Commissioners have an opportunity to stop and desist in the conspiracy of silence on these dams. Since future history is not known, except by God, I pray that they will do what is right. Don’t be caught up by the lie foisted upon us by the owners of Painted Rocks and Como. They say EWS are not feasible. The Department of Interior, through the BIA, requires, and has, EWS on all the dams that threaten Native Americans. In Lake and Flathead County, there are several dams with EWS, many of them more remote than either Como or Painted Rocks. The owners of Tin Cup dam have a refreshing attitude that should be adopted by the owners of Como and Painted Rocks. “If we are going to make money on water impounded in a dam that puts lives at risk we have an obligation to have EWS on the dam.” And they do.
As we approach the anniversary of the worst natural disaster in Montana’s history, I hope we will take the cue to be prepared. In the second week of June 1964, a two-day rain event produced as much as 14 inches of rain near Choteau, and 16 inches of rain near Browning. An amount of rain equal to an entire year’s worth of rain fell in two days on top of an above average snowpack, leading to the worst flooding in the state’s history. It was reported that 31 people lost their lives (two bodies have never been found), with 30 of those deaths being on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. It was then that the BIA, under the Department of Interior, realized the importance of EWS in protecting Native Americans and put them on all dams that threaten that group of people. But the state says they are not feasible for Painted Rocks and the Feds say they are not feasible for Como.
Since we don’t know the future, we wear seat belts, we put up smoke alarms and make sure they work. Isn’t it time to stop the “conspiracy of silence” and do what is necessary to mitigate the loss of life because of a dam failure in our valley? What are 10,000 lives worth?
Dallas D. Erickson