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EPA, Partners Explain Superfund Cleanup Plan In Butte

More than 100 people came to Montana Tech at noon on Wednesday to hear about the cleanup plan
Eric Whitney
More than 100 people came to Montana Tech at noon on Wednesday to hear about the cleanup plan

This post was updated at 9 PM Wed, May 30.

Top EPA officials were in Butte yesterday to explain details of the proposed Superfund cleanup that was agreed to in January, and get feedback from locals. 

More than 160 people came out to two meetings at Montana Tech to hear about the cleanup agreement, which covers a large chunk of the Butte hill.

The plans have been under wraps for over a decade, but last week a federal judge lifted the gag order on the “conceptual agreement” between the US Environmental Protection Agency, State of Montana, Butte-Silver Bow County and Atlantic Richfield Company. EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento told the crowd those parties are now free to share their draft cleanup plan with the public.

“When we’re talking about this agreement," Benevento said, "you should never hear from us: "We can’t talk about that because there’s a confidentiality order. What you may hear is we don’t know yet. We’re working on that and we can give your our thoughts around it.”

There are four cornerstones of the proposed cleanup.

One: Remove more than a million cubic yards of mine tailings from the Silver Bow and Blacktail Creek corridors.

Two: Build an extensive catch basin system at the base of the Butte Hill to collect stormwater and drop out dirty sediments.

Three: Try hard to clean stormwater to state standards before returning it to Silver Bow Creek. But if necessary, use less stringent federal standards.

And four, evaluate and clean up dozens of old mining sites still unreclaimed or under-reclaimed on the Butte Hill.

The EPA’s Benevento stressed that taxpayers won’t get the bill.

“Y’all ain’t paying for it," he said. "ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Company) is funding the cleanup. One that is protective of human health and the environment and one that allows you all to shape the future you want for your community. We’re taking comment with that spirit in mind.”

The EPA’s goal is to have a final agreement, called a consent decree, by the end of 2018, and start cleanup work next spring.

John Sorich, a Silver Bow county commissioner, expressed skepticism.

“I’m not being negative but it seems like we’ve had a lot of dates come and go over the years," Soric said. "Hopefully we can get it as close to that as possible. What kind of insurances do we have?”

Benevento says that if the agreement can’t be finalized by the end of the year, the EPA can mandate its own cleanup under an administrative order.

“I’m confident that we’re not going to have to do that, but that’s your insurance. We’re not going to let this process slide, we’re not going to let this process turn into a joke," Benevento said. 

EPA officials say they’ll return to Butte in the coming weeks to go further into the technical aspects of Butte’s proposed Superfund clean-up, and gather more public input.

More information on the proposed cleanup can be found here.

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