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Butte Advocates ‘Pleased’ With Mine Waste Cleanup Agreement

Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Doug Benevento, at right of screen, spoke in Butte in January, 2018
Corin Cates-Carney
Montana Public Radio
Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Doug Benevento speaks before a crowd in Butte.

The regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency says Butte could move off the federal Superfund list by 2024, but details of that plan aren’t expected to be made public until this summer.

Administrator Doug Benevento announced steps toward a legal settlement for the cleanup of toxic mining waste in town before a crowd of more than 60 people in the Butte Friday.

“We’ve hit a milestone by reaching an agreement,” Benevento said. “This really isn’t the beginning of the end; maybe we’re a little past the end of the beginning, be we've got a lot of things left to do,”

Benevento says after more than a decade of secret negotiations between the mining company ARCO, the county, the state, and the EPA, all parties have reached an agreement on a path forward for the cleanup of Silver Bow Creek and the Butte Hill.

The agreement is not official and won’t be until it is approved by a U.S. district court.

A standing room only crowd gathered in the Butte Public Archives to listen to the EPA’s announcement.

“I’m pleased with this meeting, but I also know we cannot stop doing what we’re doing,”  said Sister Mary Jo McDonald, a long time community activist in Butte, said. “We need to continue to efforts to make sure the people’s voice is heard. We will wait now to see what the details are, because the devil is always in the details.”

Other advocates in town also expressed reserved optimism after Friday’s announcement.

“What we heard today was a very a positive move forward,” Jocelyn Dodge, a member of the Restore Our Creek Coalition, said. “In particular that the citizens of Butte were being heard and many of the ideas that people have put forward have made a difference.”

Although EPA Administrator Benevento was not able to talk in depth about details of the cleanup plan, he did generally outline the concept of the settlement.

He says additional stormwater controls will be added along upper Silver Bow Creek, and contaminated sediment will be removed along Silver Bow and Blacktail Creeks.

There will also be efforts to capture and treat contaminated groundwater along Blacktail Creek. And he said there will be cleanup and capping work for waste that’s been identified as in need of reclamation.

It’s unclear if a part of the deal could mean the state will get paid to remove the Parrot tailings, buried mine waste from the former Parrot mine and smelter that locals and the state are concerned will further contaminate Silver Bow Creek.

In the past the state of Montana has said it will do this because of the tailings threat to human health, but the EPA disagrees with that analysis.

Dan Villa, budget director for Governor Steve Bullock, says details of the cleanup plan, and who will pay for it parts of it, will be made public as soon as possible.

“Expect that from our perspective as the state of Montana, we will be putting all efforts to make sure that we can show more and have more information in front of the public and we can get some of this gag order off of us,” Villa said.

Villa, along with representatives of ARCO and Silver Bow County, all joined the EPA at the meeting announcing the cleanup deal.

Although the agreement reached last week mostly outlines work for one part of the Butte Superfund site, including Walkerville and most of the Butte’s urban area, the 2024 delisting date includes the entire site, including Berkeley pit.

In December, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the Silver Bow-Creek Butte-area Superfund site, as well as a site in Anaconda, not part of this deal, were on a special emphasis list for the agency

“We want the stigma that you all have expressed to me that you feel Superfund brings, lifted. Delisting the site, I think, does lift that stigma,” EPA Administrator Doug Benevento said.

Although it’s possible a new administration will run the EPA in 2024, Benevento says the community of Butte should hold whoever is running the agency to that timeline.

The proposed cleanup plan resulting from last week’s deal is expected to be made public this summer. The parties to the agreement say they’ll take public comment at that time, before seeking approval of it in federal court.

The EPA says the final plan is expected late 2018.

Butte has been listed on the National Priorities List of contaminated landscapes for more than 35 years.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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