On Thursday morning, close to a hundred people gathered at an old ball field across from Butte’s Civic Center and circled around haul trucks and excavators fit for Paul Bunyan, if he was a miner, and not a lumberjack.
Both the crowd and the heavy machinery were there for the groundbreaking ceremony on the Parrot tailings removal project.
Governor Bullock, decked out in a hard hat and neon construction vest, said he was happy this day had finally come.
“I will say, and I think that we all can agree, that there’s been a long path of both opportunity, which is part of what this hill built, and challenges," said Bullock. "But it is about damn time.”
The Parrot tailings are a huge pile of historic mining and smelting waste buried along the Upper Silver Bow Creek corridor in Butte. Because they’re loaded with copper, lead, cadmium, arsenic, zinc, and mercury, they’re also the source of widespread groundwater contamination issues.
For more than a decade, the state of Montana fought the Environmental Protection Agency over whether or not they needed to come out.
Unable to reach agreement, Governor Bullock announced in late 2015 that the state was moving ahead with the Parrot tailings removal under its own authority, in order to protect Silver Bow Creek and the watershed downstream.
Issues with moving county infrastructure delayed the project for several years.
“On the one hand it did take a lot longer than I wanted," said Bullock. "But I’m just so glad that we’re moving dirt and we’re going to see progress in Butte, America.”
Bullock, along with about fifteen other local and state officials, business and community leaders, got to kick off that action themselves.
Using specially inscribed mini shovels, they dug out the first few ounces of dirt from the site, and deposited it in front of a massive front end loader.
Then Monte Weeden, the owner of M.K. Weeden, the construction company that won the bid for this phase of the project, jumped into the cab. He scooped up the piles of dirt with his mammoth bucket, and emptied them into a towering dump truck, completing the symbolic cycle of toxic waste removal.
Harley Harris, with the state Natural Resource Damage Program, explained that the real excavation of several hundred thousand cubic yards of buried mine waste will be a little more complicated.
“The Parrot tailings themselves are actually buried quite a ways down, anywhere from three to twelve feet underneath some overburden,” said Harris.
That overburden is waste rock from the excavation of the Berkeley Pit, the former open pit copper mine, when it was dug out on the east edge of town in the 1950s.
“So the top layer is all going to be stripped off, and relocated, used for capping material, on the other side of the railroad tracks here, and as part of the remedial design," Harris said. "Once we dig down to the tailings themselves, the actual contaminants, that material is going to be put on these big trucks here and taken up to the Montana Resources mine site.”
Harris says it’s too soon to be able to estimate the total cost of the entire Parrot tailings removal project.
“Where we’re at in the project, we’re probably $5 million into it," said Harris. "But compared to the estimates early on, we’re in good shape."
Harris said the money for this project is coming “by and large” from restoration funds that Montana won in past settlements with Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) over damages to the state’s natural resources from historic mining activities.
The Parrot tailings removal was not included in the suite of cleanup actions that Atlantic Richfield is said to be paying for in the “conceptual agreement” for the rest of Butte’s Superfund cleanup that was made public in May.
I asked state budget director Dan Villa for clarity on the subject of financing for this project.
DAN VILLA: For the time being, the easiest way to think of this is we have saved a lot of money through the good work of DEQ, we’ve been able to create efficiencies. Phase 1 will more than be covered in just some of those savings.
NORA SAKS: So the state is paying for phase 1?
DV: The savings that we’ve received from funds that BP-ARCO has paid the state.
Regardless of who’s paying for what, there was ample excitement at the ceremony that this major source of contamination in the heart of Butte, at the headwaters of the Clark Fork and the Columbia River watersheds, is going to come out.
Elizabeth Erickson is the chair of the citizen-led Butte Natural Resource Damage Restoration Council and has been working on behalf of the community to make this a reality since 2010. Her take away?
“Not to give up. Fight for what you think needs to happen. It’s important for the corridor to clean up these wastes. We can’t have a clean corridor until that’s done first,” Erickson said.
The real dirt is expected to start flying on this first phase of the parrot tailing removal, on the northside of Civic Center Road, in July, and could be completed by early winter.