COLSTRIP - Rancher Charles Kluver has never held much trust in the companies strip-mining around Colstrip.
And last week, when he discovered what he believed to be an unauthorized dump in a strip mine on his property, he felt that his suspicions were vindicated.
"These coal companies have said what great reclamation they have," he said. "But they show you what they want you to see."
Kluver has since been informed by the Department of Environmental Quality that the state permits the some dumping of "inert" debris in pit mines.
"All these mines around here, they've been permitting it," he said. "Who's keeping track? I have no idea."
Kluver discovered the pile of debris last week while making a routine check.
From far above, the waste is dwarfed by the strip mine that surrounds it. But the reddish-brown heap of soil, laced with an odd assortment of scrap metal and wood, plastics and even an old barrel and boiler, extends roughly 170 yards long, 20 feet wide and 12 feet deep. There's no telling what else the pile contains, Kluver said, noting that he is concerned about possible contaminants leaching through and polluting the groundwater.
"Thirty or 40 years from now, I don't want my kids or grandkids dealing with pollution that they don't even know what's there," he said.
The pile is tucked deep in shadow, at the base of a 120-foot-high pile of overburden, leading Kluver to believe that Western Energy, the company mining his land, intended to cover it up.
Before it could be buried forever, Kluver contacted Rosebud County Sheriff Randy Allies, who joined Kluver for an on-site inspection. Allies took photos and alerted the state DEQ.
Bob Montgomery of Western Energy declined to comment, saying Monday the matter was under investigation by the DEQ.
On Tuesday, Kluver was contacted by Eric Urban, who is in charge of enforcement and inspection for the DEQ's coal program. He said Western Energy had contacted the agency months ago to report that it planned to dump the remnants of an old homestead into the pit.
But no one told Kluver, who says the "old homestead" was occupied as late as the 1990s. There was a modern house and shop, he said, adding that the previous owners had also treated fence posts there.
Urban said DEQ personnel visited the homestead several times to determine what could and could not be placed in the pit.
"The placement of (inert) materials is allowed under specific guidelines," Urban said, noting that several old cars and drums from the homestead were kept from the debris pile.
While Urban would not say the practice is "common," it is not all that unusual, either. He said the agency makes a monthly visit to all mine sites in the area and has established good relationships with the local mining companies. Because groundwater in the area is being monitored, he said he doubts the companies would bury contaminants that would eventually show up in the reports.
But Kluver is not convinced.
"It (debris) belongs in the state landfill eight miles away," he said. "They'll monitor that forever. As soon as they get this reclaimed, they'll quit monitoring."
The results of this week's investigation should be complete in the next 10 to 15 days, Urban said. If there's no indication of impropriety, the agency would request that Western Energy, as a good neighbor, remove the material. If hazardous materials have been dumped in the pit illegally, the agency will take action, he said.
"We'll be working closely with Mr. Kluver," he said. "They (Western Energy) are neighbors. We've got to get better communication between the two of them."