EVE BYRON Independent Record HELENA (AP)
In the past 38 years, Vic Andersen has had his fingers in a lot of piles that most people would rather avoid yes, that's piles, not pies. As one of the top mine waste cleanup managers for Montana during the past 34 years, Andersen has worked on some of the highest profile and complex cleanup projects: the Milltown Dam, Butte/Silver Bow Creek, Livingston's BNSF railyard, the Upper Tenmile watershed and the East Helena Asarco plant, to name a few. It's a long way from his start in 1970 as a sanitarian with Missoula County, where he inspected landfills and disposed of junked vehicles. Yet a World War II gas mask hangs from the wall as a reminder of his dumpdiving days, one of many career mementoes in his corner office at the Depar tme n t of Environmental Quality in Helena, and one of the last items Andersen packed recently as he prepared to retire. With his infectious laugh and an "awe shucks" attitude, Andersen is easily approachable and loves to chat. But that smile is on the face of a man dedicated to ensuring Montana taxpayers don't bear the brunt of large corporations' environmental messes, which often put him nose to nose not only with both federal officials and private corporations, but also with his own boss and his boss's bosses. "He's always done what's right for the environment, and sometimes when you do the right thing you kind of get slapped around for it, no matter what the administration is," said Joel Chavez, who's worked with Andersen for the past 16 years. "But he has always tried to do the right thing. "He's the best person I've worked for in my life. He listens to you, can make a decision quickly and will back you up." Andersen chuckles as he recalls the various administrations under which he's worked and the battles he's fought with governors and department heads, as well as federal officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service. He's usually managed to keep a sense of humor when conflicts arise, and taken it all in stride. Jan Sensibaugh, a former DEQ director who now works for the Montana Wilderness Association, said that attitude and Andersen's ability to defend his opinions with facts helped defuse many tense situations, especially in cases that took years or even decades to resolve. "He has a great demeanor in working with people. He never set anything up as being black and white. He came in with the information and helped you make an informed decision," Sensibaugh said. "He wouldn't actually make people mad but I know the EPA Superfund guys would roll their eyes when Vic came into the room because they knew he was going to make their job harder. "But that's what the state needed, to make sure we weren't left holding the bag." Andersen notes that the Superfund law, which involves state and federal governments, as well as private entities, comes with a built-in conflict. The feds and corporations often want to get environmental cleanups done as quickly and cheaply as possible, but that typically includes perpetual monitoring or water treatment. Under Superfund law, states often pick up those long-term costs. "So the state wants a perfect cleanup, so it can use the land for whatever you want, with no special-use restrictions on it or institutional controls," Andersen said. "If the EPA is funding the cleanup, they're not so prone to doing 100 percent cleanup. They just want to do it 'good enough.' The kicker is the state has to guarantee O & M costs forever. "If you clean the whole thing up so you don't have to maintain the site or operate a water treatment plant, there's no cost to the state." He's enjoyed his career, which mirrors the evolution of environmental cleanups including implementing the state's version of federal hazardous waste laws in the 1970s, underground storage tank rules in the 1980s and abandoned mine programs in the past two decades. "I stood still and the world came past my door," Andersen said. But in recent years, he and his wife, Jane Heath, began a nonprofit horse sanctuary near their home on 10 acres north of Helena. They've decided to expand that operation near Simms, east of Great Falls, which is where Andersen grew up, the third of five children. "You think the best thing ever is seeing your home town in your rearview mirror when you're a kid, and now here it is in my windshield. I never thought I'd go back there to live," Andersen said, almost in disbelief. "But we've secured about 1,200 acres between Simms and Fort Shaw, and have about 100 horses on a waiting list of people looking to get rid of their horses for one reason or another. "It's hard to walk away from this," he adds, looking around his office. "Part of you wants to stay there and finish the fight, but there will always be another fight and at some point you have to say this is the end of my fight."