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Underground Fuel Tanks at Bomb-Shelter-Building Sect Spring Leaks

April 15, 1990

CORWIN SPRINGS, Mont. (AP) _ Underground fuel tanks belonging to a sect that built huge bomb shelters in anticipation of an apocalypse have begun leaking, jeopardizing a nearby trout fishery, state officials said Saturday.

The leaks at the Church Universal Triumphant’s 750-person underground bomb shelter, amounting to as much as 20,000 gallons so far, pose a major threat to the fishery near the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, authorities said.

″We’re putting on a full-court press as an administration,″ said Steve Yeakel, chief of staff for Gov. Stan Stephens.

Yeakel said the increasingly large spill had become ″very serious,″ and the state planned to go to court Monday for an injunction to force the controversial religious group to focus all its resources on repairing the damage already done and averting further contamination.

Small amounts of the fuel have reached Mol Heron Creek but no major damage has occurred so far, officials said Saturday night.

The creek is considered a blue-ribbon fishery and one of the last remaining cutthroat trout spawning areas along the Upper Yellowstone River.

The church has been preparing for nuclear Armageddon and its local population has mushroomed since its spiritual leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, warned members that March and April are dangerous times. She suggested they come to Montana to prepare for a possible nuclear war or accident.

The sect sponsors two housing developments at Emigrant in southwestern Montana, where Park County officials say as many as 45 private underground fallout shelters exist.

Initially, church officials disclosed that 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel leaked last Tuesday from a 20,000-gallon underground storage tank, and a large-scale cleanup was under way.

On Friday night, state officials learned of a second leaking tank, and by early Saturday had been advised that from 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline had leaked into the soil.

By Saturday evening, Park County officials said church officials had told them about a third leaking tank and of church plans to launch a major effort to pump out and exhume all buried fuel tanks.

Doug Rogness of the state’s Underground Storage Tank program said previously that the church had registered 35 underground tanks at the bomb shelter complex within the last six months. He said they had a total capacity of 634,500 gallons of diesel fuel, unleaded and regular gasoline.

Also buried on the site are a number of 30,000-gallon propane storage tanks.

″It’s a helluva mess,″ said Steve Pilcher, chief of the state’s Water Quality Bureau. ″The (bomb shelter) site is a disaster anyway.″

He said that latest estimates put the total leakage at between 12,000 and 20,000 gallons of fuel, ″and 15,000 gallons is unaccounted for and going downhill″ near the creek.

He said a fuel ″sheen″ began showing up on the creek about noon Friday but, so far, leakage reaching the creek had been minimal. The fuel absorbed into the soil, however, ″poses a significant threat to the fishery. ... We’re going to do everything possible to see that doesn’t happen.″

Yeakel said Park County officials had been told the state would put all necessary resources at its disposal if necessary.

He said state officials were mobilizing to go into court early Monday to seek injunctions ″that the first order of business is that the tanks will be pumped out and removed and that things are repaired.″

The state also was being asked to call upon the federal Environmental Protection Agency to become involved.

Church members and workers from an environmental cleanup company were working frantically in knee-deep mud to recapture some of the leaked fuel, Pilcher said.

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