U.S. Air Force 'reconsiders' chemical use on rural Montana roads

Great Falls Tribune

by John S. Adams

HELENA — Malmstrom's new wing commander, Col. Heraldo Brual, told Sen. Jon Tester the Air Force would "reconsider" using calcium chloride on road stabilization projects in and around missile fields, but residents in central Montana are still not happy with the condition of many county roads.

The Air Force is in the midst of a six-year, $7 million-a-year project to overhaul roads to missile sites in northcentral and central Montana. But residents who live along some of those defense access roads say the excessive use of calcium chloride — used to stabilize the newly-rebuilt gravel roadways — has created a sloppy, corrosive mess that is more than just an inconvenience.

Tester met with Brual on Friday to discuss rural Fergus County residents' complaints.

"The Air Force has always been a good neighbor, and Montanans understand how important it is to keep these roads in top condition," Tester, himself a third-generation farmer, said in a statement Monday. "But Montanans absolutely need to be able to work their land and travel our back roads without problems."

Moore-area residents welcomed this latest development but they remained skeptical that Air Force officials plan do anything about the problem that already exists.

About 65 Moore residents attended a town hall meeting earlier this month with county, Air Force and Federal Highway Administration officials to level their complaints about the road projects. Some of the residents said they left the meeting with the feeling that Air Force officials didn't take their complaints seriously.

"I'm still mad, or worse even," said Joe Simpson, one of the organizers of the town hall meeting. "Our roads are worse than last week. It's terrible and we're getting nothing out of the Air Force. The people (Air Force officials) that were there, they just patted us on the head and said 'be patient, it's going to be just fine.'"

Air Force media officials were out of the office and not available for comment Monday.

Tester said Brual told him the Air Force would "reconsider" using calcium chloride, "at least at previous strength," as they go forward with the road-overhaul project.

However, some residents say that does nothing to the address roads that were already treated with the chemical and don't show signs of improving from their "pig pen"-like condition any time soon.

"That sure helps my neighbors, and I think that's great, but we're looking at potential damages in excess of $1 million on our farm and ranch," Simpson said. "What is the Air Force going to do about my road and my equipment that's already been damaged?"

Simpson said three combines, four tractors and numerous pick-up trucks are showing early signs of corrosion he says is caused by the slimy road muck that ends up covering vehicles and equipment that drive on the road.

"We can't get in or out of our place without driving on this stuff," Simpson said.

Dorothy Lenz, who lives on Crystal Lake Road east of Moore, said a shovel she uses to clean the muck off her garage floor is covered in rust.

Lenz said she's so sick of dealing with the sloppy roads — and the mess she has to clean up afterward — that she forgoes trips to town just to avoid driving on them.

"I don't know how to explain it except today I didn't go to town to get some things because I can't stand the thought of driving on it and getting that mess all over and having to deal with it again," Lenz said. "It's terrible to feel like you're trapped because you don't want to have to get out there and have that mess. I have a mess again in my garage and my car hasn't moved for three weeks but it's still dropping off."

Lenz said she's told friends and family not to visit her until the roads are better.

"I don't want them to have to deal with this," she said.

Tester, in a letter sent Monday to top Air Force and highway officials, is seeking answers to the concerns Simpson, Lenz and others raised.

Tester requested information on the effects the chemical has on human health and the environment, and what the Air Force is doing to make sure its use won't cause health problems for people, animals or agriculture.

Tester also asked what the agencies' plans are for maintaining the roads in the future. He also requested information on whether the government plans to reimburse Montana counties and private landowners for any costs of mitigating the effects of calcium chloride.

Lenz and Simpson said several area landowners are discussing the possibility of suing the Air Force in order to force more immediate action.

"I just suspect there will be (lawsuits)," Lenz said. "People are very upset.

"It's wouldn't be the first time the federal government has gotten sued and lost," Simpson added.