Montana delegation asks U.S. government to forgive Powell County's $3.9 million debt

by MT Standard, Susan Dunlap

Montana’s congressional delegation wants U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to forgive a $3.9 million federal bill that locals say could devastate Powell County.

U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte said Wednesday the county can’t afford to pay the bill, and the debt threatens federal funding to the county.

Tester sent a letter to the U.S. Coast Guard last month over the issue. The National Pollution Funds Center, an arm of the U.S. Coast Guard, initially billed the county $2.9 million to clean up a spill of bunker fuel used in railroad locomotives. It was feared that the spill would pollute Tin Cup Joe Creek, a tributary of the Clark Fork River.

The Coast Guard responded with a letter to Tester stating that the matter would have to be taken up with a special arm of the Treasury Department that handles overdue debt collections.

An email to the U.S. Treasury Department was not returned.

Since the original bill in 2014, the debt has grown to $3.9 million. The original bill includes over $354,000 for indirect EPA costs, more than $81,000 for EPA personnel, and more than $25,000 for Coast Guard personnel.

The county, which took on the liability for the former railroad repair site in order to help facilitate the cleanup, says they estimate the work could have been done for as little as $73,000.

Now faced with a bill it can’t pay, the county is in danger of losing crucial federal grant dollars that help pay for education and other services.

Ralph Mannix Jr., Powell County commissioner, said he’s happy that Montana’s congressional leaders are advocating for the county and trying to fix the problem.

The letter to Mnuchin says that if the Treasury Department won’t absolve the county of responsibility for the bill, the Montana congressional leadership would like to see the federal government minimize the county’s liability.

“It didn’t need to happen the way it did,” Mannix said.