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More Butte Hill Cleanup Details Revealed

A mining headframe in Uptown Butte, Montana with the city in view in the background.
Mike Albans
Montana Public Radio
Uptown Butte, MT.

The gag order on the Butte Superfund cleanup agreement was partially lifted by a federal judge yesterday. Susan Dunlap, the Montana Standard’s natural resources reporter spoke with MTPR’s Nora Saks about what that means for the mining city.

Nora Saks: What were some of the events leading up to the gag order finally being loosened?

Susan Dunlap: In January, EPA and all the other parties involved reached a conceptual agreement on the Butte Hill cleanup. And they had a meeting and they discussed it publically, but all the details in the agreement that they reached could not yet be discussed. They had to go before Judge Haddon in order to have this confidentiality order loosened so they could begin to discuss it with the public.

NS: And why is that a big deal for Butte?

SD: Because for 12 years, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state, Atlantic Richfield Company, and the county and the railroads have had these talks secretly as part of the effort to reach a conclusion around who's going to pay and what the final cleanup will look like.

NS: What do we know so far? What did the Environmental Protection Agency reveal yesterday?

SD: The big reveal was that the Parrot tailings, which were mining and smelting waste long-ago buried behind the Butte Civic Center, will be removed under state restoration dollars. There was a lot of hope within the community in Butte that the tailings waste would be removed by Atlantic Richfield Company, who was the responsible party for the cleanup here.

NS: So the Parrot tailings are going to come out, but it sounds like Atlantic Richfield is not going to be paying for them. What other aspects of cleanup came to light?

SD: One of the most interesting appears to be that, it looks like Silver Bow Creek will be relocated and reconstructed around Slag Wall Canyon, which is an area where there is metal exceedances in the creek. There's a lot of tailings waste buried underneath the slag walls and within in the Slag Wall Canyon, and so it's believed by many that that is the source of the metals getting into the creek at that stage.

Other aspects will be, they're going to do removal action at Slag Wall Canyon as well as at an area called Blacktail Berm, Northside Tailings, and Diggings East. This is part of the corridor from the Butte Civic Center to the visitor center which has long been contentious within the community and the state, and many believe that that tailings waste needs to be removed.

They'll also construct stormwater basins and small easy to clean concrete ponds. They're going to capture groundwater near the visitor center and the Slag Wall Canyon to protect Silverbow Creek.

And they also say that they're going to have something called a “community vision and participation” to develop land-use options through that particular corridor from the Butte Civic Center to the visitor center.

And they also say they're going to reclaim some other sites impacted by mining, although they don't specify where.

NS: So it's kind of a laundry list. It sounds like a lot of work is going to be done but what this doesn't really speak to is who is going to pay for what, aside from the Parrot tailings. Can you talk about any of the financial aspects of this?

SD: So far, nothing about that has been revealed. The news release that the Environmental Protection Agency released yesterday does not make it clear. Butte Superfund Coordinator John Sesso did say yesterday to me that the cleanup action will take place under remedial action, which seems to suggest at least that Atlantic Richfield will be the one to pay for it but again, that's not been verified yet.

NS: You've been reporting on Superfund for years now. Was there anything in this press release or the reveal so far that surprised you or left an impression?

SD: Well we thought that the parrot tailings would be removed with some help by Atlantic Richfield Company. It's unclear how the state is going to pay for it. At the last count, they say it will cost about $31 million, and they don't have $31 million, insofar as we're aware.

NS: I know it's so soon because the news just broke very recently, but have you picked up on any community reactions yet?

SD: Some of the most vociferous critics in Butte have expressed positive responses so far. I think people are just simply happy to know at least this much.

NS: Because this has been just shrouded in secrecy for years and years.

SD: Correct. And I think many in the community are very frustrated over the fact that it has been shrouded in secrecy and no one knew for sure what was being talked about and what might happen and what wouldn't happen.

NS: It's been four months and this is what we know. What's your perspective on the amount of information sharing that's happened and what's going to happen? When will the public find out more?

SD: So far, EPA appears to be on schedule with what they had originally outlined in January in terms of when the gag order might be loosened. However, what they've shared so far is somewhat limited and there are still a lot of questions remaining, such as how much of the tailings will be removed of the Northside tailings and the Diggings East; how much of the tailings that are within the Blacktail Berm will be removed. Those are larger questions that we don't have the answers for yet, and they seem to me to be pretty critical questions, as well as who's going to pay for it. And we're not sure why they don't just reveal everything right away instead of doing it in bits and pieces, the way they seem to be doing it.

NS: There are some public meetings planned for next week. Can you share the details on those? What's happening in Butte?

SD: So the meetings will be on May 30. The first meeting will run from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. and the second meeting will run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. They'll be at the Montana Tech Auditorium which is at 1300 West Park Street, and I believe EPA Region A Administrator Doug Benevento will be at that meeting as well as all the other representatives from all the other parties. And I believe that more details will be shared at that meeting — at both of those meetings.

NS: Susan Dunlap thanks for joining us to talk about all things superfund and Butte.

SD: Thanks Nora for having me.

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