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HELENA — Sen. Max Baucus said the Environmental Protection Agency is mismanaging the cleanup effort of mine waste in and around Rimini.

In a letter to Susan Bodine, the head of the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response in Washington, D.C., Baucus, D-Mont., requested a detailed work plan and budget by the end of July for the Superfund site west of Helena.

He also urged Bodine "in the strongest terms possible" to address the ongoing problems at the site, and get the cleanup effort finished "expeditiously."

"Over the past five years, the EPA has spent approximately $24 million studying, creating work plans and constructing a wastewater system only to subsequently change course and leave the wastewater system idle. Meanwhile, human exposure to lead, cadmium and zinc has yet to be contained," Baucus wrote.

Rimini and the mountainsides surrounding the small community were declared a federal Superfund site in 1999 because of high levels of heavy metals in the soils, left over from decades of mining.

In 2001, the EPA came up with a plan to replace yards and develop new water and waste water systems. Rimini's yards haven't been replaced because many of the existing water systems don't conform to current county regulations or are failing, and if they were disturbed would have to be replaced.

The EPA stopped work on a community septic system in March after spending $1.6 million on its design and instead decided to proceed with yard cleanup in early July, said Kathy Moore with the Lewis and Clark County Health Department. She said the EPA told the county it may return to the area next summer to finish the wastewater system, but it might not.

"To have the rug pulled out from underneath them at the end of the project is wrong and the EPA needs to keep their end of the bargain," County Commissioner Ed Tinsley wrote in a memo read at Tuesday's meeting by Commission Chairwoman Anita Varone. "Does anyone really believe that once they dig up the yards they will ever come back and dig them up again to install the rest of the infrastructure?" he wrote.

John Wardell, the EPA's Montana director, said the decision to delay completion of the community wastewater system was based on concerns that the Rimini residents might not be able to afford the annual operation and maintenance costs for both wastewater and community water systems; that the wastewater system was proving to be much more expensive than initially anticipated; and that other Superfund sites in the region and nationally also were competing for limited cleanup dollars.

Wardell said the EPA is close to finishing plans for a water supply system so it will have better estimates for the monthly costs to residents. He said he would then seek funding to complete the project next year.

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