State To Seek Court Order Halting Church Shelter Construction
CORWIN SPRINGS, Mont. (AP) _ Officials said today they will ask a court to halt construction of a fallout shelter complex near Yellowstone National Park after more than 30,000 gallons of fuel leaked from the builders’ buried tanks.
At the state capital in Helena, David Niss, an attorney with the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences, said after a meeting with Gov. Stan Stephens and state regulators that the state will seek a court order this week.
It would direct the Church Universal and Triumphant, a New Age religious sect that is building the shelter, to stop all construction until completion of an environmental review.
The spill brought members of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emergency response team from Denver and Helena to monitor a cleanup effort a the church’s headquarters on a mountain ranch on the northern boundary of the nation’s oldest national park.
″There’s a significant danger for more environmental harm if things are not done right,″ said Bob Thompson, another department attorney.
Niss said an administrative order would be issued today requiring the church to empty, remove and inspect all 35 underground storage tanks buried at the shelter complex, a process already under way. The state also will demand the church turn over information on how the tanks were installed, he said.
A church spokesman had no immediate comment.
John Wardell, head of the Montana EPA office, said staff members would inspect the church’s compound under authority of the federal Clean Water Act and rules governing underground storage tanks. But, he added, the EPA now is simply offering assistance to state pollution control officials as needed.
The church installed the underground tanks for 634,500 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel as part of a 750-person fallout-shelter complex it is completing at its Corwin Springs headquarters five miles north of Yellowstone.
The fuel was intended for use after an unspecified global catastrophe - possibly nuclear holocaust - the group believes may occur this spring. The church and its followers are building dozens of smaller shelters in the Paradise Valley region north of Yellowstone preparing for possible disaster.
The fuel leaked from at least three of the tanks. The church reported the leaks last week. State officials fear more ruptures.
The head of the state Water Quality Bureau, Steve Pilcher, warned Monday: ″They’re popping the seams big time; these aren’t any small ruptures.″
Reporters were not allowed by the church to visit the site, near Mol Heron Creek, an important trout spawning stream that runs into the Yellowstone River.
Small amounts of fuel that reached the creek Sunday were gone Monday, and no major damage had occurred, officials said. But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials took water samples downstream from the spill for tests.
Neighbors and environmentalists expressed anger at the construction.
″I think any further progress should be stopped. We’d like to see penalties assessed for the damage that’s occurred,″ said Julia Page, president of the Upper Yellowstone Defense Fund in Gardiner, Mont., at the park’s northern gate.
Church officials said they’re committed to cleaning up the spilled fuel and will excavate and inspect all 35 tanks. Workers were pumping out tanks and loading the fuel into trucks to be taken as far away as Salt Lake City.
″No one wants a repeat of this situation,″ said church spokesman Murray Steinman. ″Everything that can be done is being done. Our goal is to get this cleaned up. ... They’ve mobilized a literal army up there.″
State officials said the confirmed ruptures in three tanks suggest more of the tanks may leak because of a possible flawed installation. ″Each and every one of these tanks is at risk,″ said Kevin Keenan of the Water Quality Bureau.
Pilcher said the tanks may have ruptured because they were installed in frozen soil that shifted when it began to thaw. Their installation during the winter exempted the tanks from regulations that took effect April 1.
Steinman said the tanks met state and federal specifications and were installed by experienced engineers. He said the church had not rushed to beat the April 1 deadline.
The group owns about 30,000 acres in southern Montana’s Park County. Local officials estimate 2,000 to 3,000 church members live in the scenic mountain valley. The church said nobody is living in the fallout shelters.
State officials earlier this year reopened an environmental review of church developments near Corwin Springs, saying the church concealed construction of the shelter complex during the original review a year ago.