The upper St. Joe is one of Idaho’s most pristine rivers. It sparkles as it skips over rocks past this tiny Shoshone County town.
But for decades, anglers have known that the famous trout stream has a problem. Oil oozes from its north shore, site of an old railroad yard. Cast in the wrong spot, and you reel in a gooey line.
The problem is on its way to being fixed.
Potlatch Corp., which owns part of the property, has installed an underground system to capture the oil before it reaches the St. Joe.
If the system works as expected, it will protect a “special resource water,” so classified because of its outstanding beauty and recreational value.
The trenches, pipes and pumps went in last fall.
Construction followed six years of wrangling by Potlatch and state attorneys to get CMC Heartland Partners corporate heirs to the bankrupt Milwaukee Railroad - to clean up the mess.
CMC contributed only $60,000, according to Potlatch spokesman Mike Sullivan. Area manager Norm Linton estimated Potlatch will spend $500,000 by the time the site is clean.
Potlatch didn’t know it was getting an environmental headache when it bought land at Avery as part of a 91,000-acre purchase of railroad property.
That was in 1980. The company learned about the problem in 1988 from state environmental officials, who were told by a fisherman.
Portions of the polluted, three-acre former railyard also are owned by the Federal Highway Administration, which completed the St. Joe River Road after the problem was discovered; and by the heirs of a pioneer family. The land had reverted to the family after the railroad went bankrupt.
The Theriault family couldn’t afford to help with the cleanup. The highway administration refused to take any responsibility, Linton said.
The state could have taken Potlatch to court. Instead, environmental officials praise the company for getting on with the job.
“We’re pleased that Potlatch bit the bullet and did the work that’s needed,” said Kreg Beck of the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality. “How well the remediation works remains to be seen, because it was winter before they really got it working.”
The system operated a month before it was shut down for the winter. It includes four recovery trenches, dug end-to-end along 750 feet of riverbank.
The trenches are 20 feet deep, and filled with gravel. Tainted ground water seeps into them. The oil is sucked from the top of the water into a 4,000-gallon holding tank. The water is pumped uphill to an infiltration trench. From there, it flows back toward the recovery trenches, starting the process over again.
Although the technology is proven, Potlatch managers said, no one knows how long cleanup will take.
“We agreed to pump until the thickness of oil is less than one-tenth of an inch,” said Linton.
The oil found in one monitoring well was four feet deep, he said.
Linton keeps a bottle of the thick, foul-smelling diesel oil on his desk in St. Maries. Potlatch construction manager Greg Rapp remembers being nearly overpowered with fumes when trench diggers hit ground water 13 feet down.
Last summer, Potlatch placed floating booms across the river to catch leaking oil. There turned out to be “more than we could handle,” Rapp said.
Rapp had the task of removing oilstained absorbent pads from the booms.
“I was out there with hip boots and fish nets,” he said. “It took me about four hours. I did that a couple of times.”
This summer, he’ll dispense with the pads and hire a contractor to pump out the oil from behind the booms.
Unpleasant as it is, Linton said, repeated tests have shown that oil does not contain toxic chemicals.
The oil could have gotten into the ground from spills, leakage and overfilling of train fuel tanks.
Soon after buying the land, Potlatch removed a 500,000-gallon, above-ground fuel tank. The seven sets of tracks are long gone, too.
The only sign of the railroad’s legacy is the few above-ground parts of the oil cleanup system: a green tank, a backyard-type storage shed housing the pump controls, and manhole covers that allow access to pumps in the trenches.