For decades now, Superfund meetings have been routine in Butte, but their highly technical nature can deter locals who want to stay informed and involved. In response, KBMF- Butte’s community radio station, hosted its first ever Superfund forum last Friday night.
About 50 people of all ages gathered in Montana Tech’s Library Auditorium for a different kind of conversation about Superfund , one aimed at demystifying the complex science, policy and jargon behind the ongoing cleanup.
The event was the brainchild of 26-year-old Butte native Daniel Hogan, who is serving as an Americorps VISTA member with KBMF.
“It really boils down to the fact that over 100 years of mining activity has made dangerous and deadly toxins readily available in the ecosystem in which we live," Hogan told those who came. "And those toxins must be rendered unavailable by some means. It’s my hope that by the end of the evening we will become more intimately acquainted with how this process works.”
The forum featured six panelists, including citizen advocates, Montana tech professors, and city and state employees who know Superfund front and back.
High school junior Leif Clark was the designated “Chief Accessibility Officer.”
“Simply put, I’m here this evening to insure that tonight’s discussion remains at a technical level appropriate for people who aren’t necessarily experts with the Superfund dialect,” Clark said.
Hogan asked the experts to explain and weigh in on a variety of public and environmental health concerns. Clark was on acronym patrol.
“Alright now, just as a quick clarification are you using CERCLA in the same context and usage as Superfund?” he asked at one point.
Mary Kay Craig, a founding member of the group Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice, and a two time cancer survivor, is particularly interested in something announced in November, phase two of the EPA’s upcoming health study on contaminants of concern.
“I don’t mean to be putting down any of the agencies," Craig said, "but I think that for us to really have great confidence in what comes out of it, it would be good if EPA, DEQ, the county, and BP ARCO - if they would be separate from the independent entity that puts it together.”
Rayelynn Brandl, the director of the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, thinks the study should look beyond just physical health indicators and consider the community’s mental and emotional health.
“Does the Superfund status and living in a place that’s considered toxic, affect our mental health? Does it add to suicide rates? Does it add to alcoholism? What happens to our children as they’re growing up here - do they want to just leave and get out of Butte as soon as they can?" were questions Brandl suggested.
Another theme of the discussion was the status of the reclamation of hundreds of acres of old mine waste dumps on the Butte hill. And what restoration can really mean in a landscape that’s been fundamentally altered by mining activities.
David Hutchins tackled that second R in the context of the debate over the future of Silver Bow Creek, which runs through Butte. He’s a scientist and member of the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee.
“I think it is important to notice that that creek was once connected to the entire watershed that’s above it, beyond the Pit," Hutchins said, "and so no matter how we look at it, it is going to be a compromise. We’re going to draw the line somewhere and say from here down we want it to be a creek - and above that we’re going to accept that it’s beyond repair.”
The Berkeley Pit, often the most popular topic in Superfund conversations, was noticeably just a sidebar at this forum, in part because its fate is legally settled.
Instead, forum organizer Daniel Hogan asked the panel for insight on the EPA’s recent announcement that the parties responsible for the clean-up of the Butte hill are close to reaching an agreement after 12 years at the negotiating table.
“I’m glad you started with ‘there’s a gag order’," replied Pat Cunneen, with the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program. While he was limited in what he could say, he did share that after a prolonged stalemate, the state is moving ahead with the removal of a big deposit of mine waste buried near Silver Bow Creek.
“Since the meeting in January, that’s about all we can say publicly: is the Parrot tailings are coming out," Cunneen said.
As the discussion veered towards what the public could do going forward, Cunneen stressed that the clean-up on the table now is better because of citizens speaking up.
“So I would encourage you all to stay vigilant, stay engaged and stay vocal, because it ain’t over yet," Cunneen said. "We don’t have a signed agreement. And if you fall back asleep, the agreement’s not going to be as good as if you stay vocal.”
After the formal chat, attendees gathered in the lobby snacking on mini-pasties.
Lynn Ferguson said she found the forum really helpful. She said it helped give her a better understanding.
“On the process," Ferguson said. "I’ve heard the acronyms thrown around and getting them explained makes a lot more sense.”
David Hutchins with the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee said the tone of this event was a contrast from many other Superfund meetings he’s been a part of that have gotten confrontational.
“There’s some knock down drag out fights at some of these meetings," Hutchins said. "This was refreshing to have it be very friendly.”
Adriana D’Auria said while she’s lived near the Berkeley Pit for the last ten years, she came to this event not knowing much about Superfund.
“So this was actually really good for me because it covered things from a basic standpoint to where I can understand it," D'Auria said.
Event organizer Daniel Hogan plans to continue hosting a radio show called Superfund 101 on KBMF using the station as a platform to educate his community on the progress of the clean-up.