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Update On Butte Superfund Cleanup From Montana Standard Editor David McCumber

Uptown Butte, MT.
Josh Burnham
Uptown Butte, MT.

In Butte, the Environmental Protection Agency now says it's going to take a closer look at a neglected part of the big Superfund site there. But work at another remains stalled. Nora Saks got an update on what is and isn't happening with cleaning up in Butte from David McCumber editor of the Montana Standard.

Nora Saks: David McCumber, thanks for joining us again on Montana Public Radio.

David McCumber: Nora, it's always a pleasure.

NS: In the last week, the "Montana Standard" has run multiple stories related to toxics and the cleanup of toxic sites. So I wanted to zoom in on that central theme with you today. The last time we spoke, we discussed West Side soils. That's the section of Butte Superfund cleanup that hasn't been evaluated for human health risks where there's still a lot of contamination leftover from the mining days. It sounds like EPA now has a timeline for starting the work and the Superfund process at that site. And I was hoping you could catch us up to speed on some of the developments.

DM: Yeah, I think that the inspector general's report that we reported on, pointing out the fact that EPA after 34 years hadn't gotten around to starting on West Side soils, must have touched a nerve, because very shortly after that report EPA has announced that indeed they are going to start looking to see what there is to clean up in West Side soils. They're going to start next summer. They're going to name a site manager and get going on it. Obviously that's great. I would say that I don't think anybody is doing cartwheels yet. It's going to take quite a while. The fact that they haven't started this yet means that we've still got a long way to go. And I would also point out that with Butte priorities, soils is a fairly clear cut pattern of contamination, and West Side soils is different. There are a lot of abandoned mine sites. There are a lot of lot more scattered sites around. And so that complicates matters. First of all, they've got to be found, identified and each one of them characterized. But they also might have different people potentially responsible for them, and maybe a longer and even more challenging cleanup than the rest of Butte.

NS: That's helpful context and putting it in perspective. But now at least there's a beginning.

DM: At least there's a beginning. That's exactly right.

NS: There's also been some frustration around the remediation work at another Superfund site that we don't talk about as often near Butte: the Montana pole plant. Now that's an old wood treatment facility that closed in the 1980s. And the planning director for Butte-Silver Bow recently wrote a letter calling the Department of Environmental Quality's communication with the public around that site and specifically dioxin at that site, a "marked failure." Why? What's going on there?

DM: The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) basically came to an agreement and they have a amount of cash that they have allocated to clean up the site. But they are responsible now for doing the work to clean up the site. And there's a lot of frustration around the fact that, I don't think anybody realized how ineffective the treatment for dioxin -- what they call bio remediation -- using biological agents to treat, to try to neutralize or break down a toxin. It just didn't work. And DEQ says 'well you know, if you were paying attention you knew that it wasn't working well, and we did communicate it.' But if the county's own Superfund coordinator wasn't aware of how ineffective the remediation was, then I don't think anybody else was either. So, there's a lot of, a lot of frustration.

NS: Sounds like the communication breakdown between the agency and the Silver Bow County have affected some of the county's plans and attempts to move forward with developing that site. Can you elaborate on that?

DM: Ironically it involves another site, the Parrot tailings, which the state has committed to excavate. The current county shops, the maintenance yards, sit on top of the Parrot tailings. And so the shops have to be moved. And it's a large operation, the county shops and so it's a very involved thing. But the the pole plant site was under consideration for a long time as a site for the future home of the county shops, and I think John Sesso --who is the county's Superfund coordinator in addition to being the planning director, in addition to being a state senator and minority leader -- I think his his beef with the is that you let us go pretty far down the road considering the pole plant as an industrial site when you knew that the cleanup was probably not going to be sufficient to make that possible. And so that's what he's complaining about. And from the from the standpoint of others, I mean, they're the neighbors who have been putting up with reduced property values from this clean up and from this contamination, and a lengthy, lengthy cleanup. And for them to find out that it really hasn't worked well and we're going to have to go to plan B, is very discouraging.

NS: Well I want to talk to you now about asbestos. That's the deadly fibrous material that is in a lot of old buildings and insulation that causes different types of cancer and lethal pulmonary diseases. There's a Butte-based contractor that has just filed a lawsuit against the Department of Environmental Quality over their management or mismanagement of the disposal of asbestos waste. What is he concerned about, who is in harm's way?

DM: The contractor Doug Ingraham who is has a company called Ingraham Environmental, they do asbestos abatement, among other things. What he's concerned about is that a lot of demolition projects, you know commercial building demolition projects that go on around the state, they're never inspected and so they never get their asbestos permit. And so, because they're never inspected and they never get a permit, the waste just goes into the normal waste stream at the landfills and everybody is potentially exposed in the demolition process, in the transportation process to the landfill, and then in the disposal process at the landfill. Because there are very specific ways and quite strict ways under state law that asbestos is supposed to be disposed of. And what he's saying is if the process doesn't start because nobody's enforcing making contractors get permits for demolitions that could involve asbestos, then everybody is vulnerable. He's got a good point in the state that has a really tragic asbestos legacy with with Libby and all that happened there. Seems like we should be at least taking advantage of the quite strict laws that are on the books, but you can't do that if you don't enforce them.

NS: It sounds like DEQ is not necessarily in agreement with him. What is their response been to his allegations in his petition?

DM: They don't really take issue with the fact that a lot of asbestos is escaping regulation in this process. Their argument is a legal one. They say that the legal wording of the law doesn't make it necessary for them to be that aggressive; that they don't have to seek out these demolitions they just have to basically respond when asked and permit these things. It's good to note that Ingram says in his suit that compliance with the law is somewhere between five and 10 percent. And he said the highest estimate he's ever heard, which was from the state, was 25 percent. And the state doesn't really quarrel with those numbers. They're really not taking issue directly with those numbers. And so that's pretty alarming. I mean if compliance is that five or 10 percent, that means there's a lot of asbestos that's not being handled correctly.

NS: I know that this contractor is the one with the name on the lawsuit but a lot of the frustrations mentioned are on behalf of other folks in his industry. So what kind of changes does he want to see?

DM: He just wants to see a process where the landfill owners or landfill operators have a have a shot at understanding what's coming across the scales. He wants these jobs to be sort of profiled in advance so that people can know what's being disposed of, and then he wants DEQ to be much more aggressive and proactive in seeking out these demolitions and making sure that they're handled right.

NS: David McCumber, thanks for joining us today to talk toxics and to share the news from Butte.

DM: Well Nora it's great to be with you. Thank you.

Nora Saks is a reporter and producer based in Butte, MT.
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