When most people picture the Silver Bow Creek corridor in the middle of Butte, they think of a forgotten drainage ditch and an industrial wasteland.
But now, Atlantic Richfield, the BP-owned company in charge of cleaning it up, says they have a plan to turn it into a lush greenway, the likes of which could rival the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula. With interwoven trails and wetlands, and parks and playgrounds beckoning families to hang out. A natural paradise and a center of activity.
Josh Bryson is a project manager with Atlantic Richfield.
“If completed, the project will accomplish more than clean water. I think it’s probably the most positive, most significant project that we could see here in quite some time," said Bryson.
For almost a year, Atlantic Richfield and the state and federal agencies sharing Superfund cleanup responsibilities have been busy brokering a final legal and financial deal behind closed doors. Meanwhile, they’ve been hosting design workshops, inviting locals to dream up what the creek corridors could look like once the cleanup is over.
On Thursday at Butte Brewing Company, about 70 people witnessed their new vision for the major creek corridors in the heart of town come to virtual life.
Avatars that looked like they escaped from a video game walked stiffly through a trippy but tranquil 3D rendering of trail systems and tree canopies. Or sat on benches near sparkling ponds, and sipped drinks on outdoor patios that could exist five, ten, fifteen years from now.
Landscape architect Stacey Robinson unveiled the master plan.
“What we’re focused on, and have been focused on, is what are the end land use opportunities? What are the cool things that we could do on the surface of the remedy that provide community benefit?” said Robinson.
In Butte, the crux of the remaining remedy, or cleanup, centers on protecting Silver Bow and Blacktail Creeks, the headwaters of the Clark Fork and Columbia Rivers.
The proposed plan would remove historic toxic mining and smelting waste that still lines the creek corridors. Dirty groundwater and stormwater running off the steep Butte hill will be captured and treated forever, so it doesn’t further contaminate the watershed downstream.
“The interesting thing about the process is - for many years, it’s been bottom up. What’s the remedy? What do we have to do? And what’s left over has kind of been the end land use," said Robinson.
But now, Robinson says, the remedy and land use plans are integrated. So if this final Superfund deal goes through, the creeks will be protected, and a 160 acre swath in the center of Butte will be transformed into the continuous greenway corridor shown in the movie.
With greens and blues everywhere, a spiderweb of trails links up with other networks in Butte and beyond. It eddies around the reconstructed creeks, a new fishing pond, and a family of stormwater basins. But instead of industrial retention ponds, they look like natural wetlands, with boardwalks and meandering creek-like channels.
And there’s more. Over 1000 new trees and native plantings. Playgrounds. Picnic shelters. An event plaza. Even an amphitheatre the size of the Kettlehouse venue in Missoula.
“The idea was, that through the public comment, there were a lot of things that were really hot items, and there were items that were not even on the radar," said Robinson. "So the idea is to try to create a flexible space so that as your community evolves and changes direction and changes priorities, spaces like this can really adapt to those opportunities.”
One section of Upper Silver Bow Creek will remain a channelized storm drain. While that’s not the free flowing creek many locals have said they want to see, decision-makers say this plan doesn’t “preclude” that possibility in the future.
Julia Crain, a planner with Butte-Silver Bow, underscored that seeing these visuals should be the beginning, not the end of community involvement. Because if Superfund decision-makers reach a deal, which they say is imminent, it will be subject to a formal public comment period. Then, when the documents are finalized -
“That’s when we start designing and we begin implementing this work that will move our community forward into the future and hopefully have something as gorgeous as this to show, not only to visitors to our community, but we as residents can enjoy for generations to come,” Crain said.
Many locals were enthusiastic about seeing such a transformative land use plan, but others had questions about the timeline, and the price tag. Bakery owner Bert Plattner asked Josh Bryson from Atlantic Richfield directly about funding.
BERT PLATTNER: It all sounds great, but let’s face it, we’re in a political year and there’s a lot of promises being made all around the board. I just want to know - is anything in it concrete? I mean, do we have any money for this? Or is it all just kinda pipe dream?
JOSH BRYSON: We have money for it.
BP: But is it actually appropriated? Is it dedicated?
Bryson confirmed that the company is paying for the design, construction, execution and ongoing maintenance of almost everything displayed on this master land use plan. If an agreement is reached, they intend to start breaking ground next year.
The anticipated agreement would be legally binding on Atlantic Richfield, but as a private company, they’re not required to disclose the amount of money they’re committing to in the final cleanup deal.