Blaine County’s Planning and Zoning Commission denied an application to rework a private hill in Triumph on Thursday, following a hearing that highlighted the tenuous peace of the polluted townsite as much as terms of its mountainside protections.
After nearly three hours and intense public pressure, the commissioners unanimously rejected landowner Carl Massaro’s plan to remediate and regrade a portion of his property off of East Fork Road, finding the project non-compliant with the county’s Mountain Overlay District.
But the underlying ordinance was secondary to concerns over the property itself, which—like much of the onetime mining camp—sits atop a toxic mix of heavy chemicals.
On Monday, Massaro said his goal was simply to clean it up, and to do the work himself. Last week, his neighbors—many not close friends—were concerned about what he might stir up in the process, or during whatever he had planned afterward.
“That doesn’t matter,” Massaro said of his future plans, and their bearing on his application. “I don’t know—I want to get the site done first.”
“Done” first means skimming the top layer of dirt off the site and replacing it with a cap made of straw and clean soil. That layer—near an old mill site used by the Triumph Mine—has a “ridiculous” amount of lead and arsenic, according to Bruce Smith of Alpine Enterprises, Massaro’s surveyor.
“What you’ve got right now is a private property owner who’d like to clean up hazardous waste on his property,” Smith said. “It looks to me, every time it rains, hazardous material is running down that hill. Every time its dry, dust is getting blown up. The best way to handle it is to cap it, and keep people from getting close to it.”
There, though, governing bodies overlap. Massaro already has the approval he needs from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to do the remediation. Following Thursday’s decision, he doesn’t have permission to do the work on the protected hillside, where he proposed filling in an abandoned underground chamber, removing debris and grading the slope.
Though the DEQ permits remediation work, the county controls the hillside. And, while the county can control what happens to the hillside, it can’t monitor remediation.
Residents of the area have tried to fill the gaps with something called the “Triumph Community Protection Measures,” a voluntary agreement designed to ensure that contaminated soil is property disposed of or capped off. During Thursday’s hearing, it looked toothless. The DEQ reviews and records projects; if a landowner agrees, they’ll keep a file on each property to inform future efforts. but it relies on residents to self-report the work they’re doing, and doesn’t typically monitor the process as it occurs.
“My main concern is dust and erosion,” said DEQ Mine Waste Program Scientist Don Carpenter, who manages Triumph’s remediation efforts. “As long as he manages that, he can do this any way he wants. This is not heavy-handed oversight telling him what to do on private property.”
That did little to put the commissioners at ease.
“I’m not too concerned about removing the bumps and resloping it,” Commissioner Mike O’Farrell said. “I’m concerned about the other stuff going on up there. It sounds like a lot of things could go wrong.”
In public comments, Massaro’s neighbors highlighted nearly all of them. They also made it clear that they don’t get along with Massaro, or trust that he’d stick to the plan without an agency looking over his shoulder with a stick in case he steps out of line.
“You can’t just let him go helter skelter up there and assume he’s going to do what he says he’s going to do,” said Triumph resident Billy Collins, one of nearly a dozen who spoke against the application, and the applicant behind it.
For his part, Massaro wrote that off long ago. It’s mutual, he said—they’ve been sparing for almost 40 years.
“It’s a Hatfields and McCoys deal,” Massaro said. “This isn’t the first time I’ve done work like this—it’s the first time they’ve had the opportunity to come down and stab me.
“I want my property squeaky clean. I intend to get this done, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”