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2024 Montana Primary elections

Superfund Coordinator Spells Out What Proposed Cleanup Means For Butte

Butte-Silver Bow County's Superfund Coordinator Jon Sesso stands in front of the overlook at Foreman's Park in Butte in June 2018.
Nora Saks
Montana Public Radio
Butte-Silver Bow County's Superfund Coordinator Jon Sesso stands in front of the overlook at Foreman's Park in Butte in June 2018.

  Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled some details about the proposed Superfund cleanup for Butte. This week I had a chance to interview Butte-Silver Bow County Superfund coordinator Jon Sesso at Foreman’s Park in Butte to find out what that plan might mean for the town.

Nora Saks: How does it feel to finally be able to reveal the scaffolding of the cleanup plan to the public?

Jon Sesso: Very refreshing. After eight years of working on it, and never being able to explain specifically to the public that we had been making progress, but I can't tell you, it is just great now to change to informing and explaining what's going on, as good as we can, informing the public about what's going on.

NS: Clearly you think the conceptual plan is good for Butte. But any kind of negotiated agreement surely has to be a compromise. So what are you happy that Butte got in this agreement, and is there anything not in there that you wish could have gotten for Butte?

JS: There's nothing in the proposal that we didn't get for Butte. Every decision we make on Superfund is guided by three principles: One, we have to protect the taxpayer from any of the costs of cleanup. Two, we have to do right by the resource. In this case, water quality, but also soil. And three, we have to have some end land use opportunities and benefits and assets once the remedy is in place.

And, I'm confident that the proposal on the table addresses and meets those three goals for the community.

Getting the tailings out of water's way, in my mind's eye, was the number one goal of our community. That's what they wanted. The future is better with those tailings out of the way. The other thing we got done is we have shaped the stormwater management task in a way that is compatible with the community's vision of what the corridor should look like. All that work, paid for by ARCO [Atlantic Richfield Company], I think was some really solid steps forward on behalf of our community.

NS: In your mind, what are the main pillars of the cleanup?

JS: Well the main pillar is water quality. The removal of the Diggings East, the removal of the Northside Tailings, the removal of the Blacktail Berm area, Butte Reduction Works - a lot of that had to do with groundwater. And getting tailings and mine waste out of water's way. And then the relationship between getting that stuff done, to stormwater and the water coming off the hill. Collecting it properly. Letting the metals drop out. And making sure we meet stormwater quality standards in the future. That guided our thinking and our decision-making process throughout.

NS: What do those cleanup actions mean for the average Buttian? For a local, in a day to day sense?

JS: Because there has been such a lag in these last ten years, there is a common perception that nothing has been done. All that good work that happened more than ten years ago is kind of forgotten. It's like 'what have you done for me lately?' This will be the most visible set of projects. Including the Parrot Tailings, and moving the shops, and really redesigning and re-contouring and making this corridor all it can be will be pretty significant. For the guy, the average guy, it will be a matter of seeing the progress and allowing our community to move past Superfund. And on with the rest of our history. We've got lots of great things happening in Butte. And it's time for us to be recognized as 'once-was' a Superfund site, now has been remediated and restored and boy is this community clicking now. This agreement has the keys to getting us there.

NS: One of the activist groups in town, the Restore Our Creek Coalition, contends that this cleanup will be a failure if the entire first mile of Silver Bow Creek isn't a free-flowing, meandering creek in the future. Do you agree with that? Do you disagree? What do you make of that?

JS: I respectfully disagree with the notion that without a meandering stream, this cleanup action is going to be a failure. Far from it. I think this is going to be a tremendous success. I think that the remedy and the work done to date has been successful. And we're almost doubling down, we're going to do that much more work in the corridor. What I heard the Restore Our Creek people say number one, was get the tailings out of water's way. That was paramount to a clean and healthful remedy running through our town. I'm real pleased that that will get done.

But the idea that the stream has to be exactly looking like Silver Bow Creek as we know it, I question that. I think we can get nearly there. Hey, if we come up short on one section not being a meandering stream, there's going to be a reason for that. And it has to do with stormwater management and it has to do with where the water is going to come from to feed that stream.

I want to let this settle in for a week or two weeks or a month. Look at these work plans. See where there's matchup points between the vision document of Restore Our Creek and what ARCO is willing to do under remedy that can complement that. I really believe that there's an opportunity here. And what's possible is going to carry the day. And it might not be exactly the meandering stream that some would want, but it's going to be a darn nice looking corridor. With public benefit and viewing and access, and largely what I think the public wants.

NS: How important do you think public perception is to getting to a final consent decree. Could negative public perception potentially jeopardize it and contribute to the EPA instead pivoting to a unilateral administrative order?

JS: There is that possibility, yeah. If we don't do a good job of informing and explaining and we don't let people know what's at stake, and people get the wrong idea, there is a lesser result on the horizon, if we don't get it done this time. I think that public perception can change if we do a good job informing and explaining. I will say that public involvement has had a critical role to get where we are today. The last couple of years in particular, with the activism in town, I think it's played an instrumental role in getting to the robust cleanup that we have now in mind.

My only appeal is that they actually read the documents. I was a little taken aback that in the roll-out, people were still claiming their concerns, or they were expressing their concerns, before they were given the information. And now the information's out there and their concerns are the same. I just hope that they take the time to read and be receptive to explanations and then ask questions. Challenge the plan.

NS: Last week Doug Benevento with the EPA said Atlantic Richfield is going to be paying for the cleanup, the company's VP was nodding along. What is reasonable to expect from the company? Because it seems to me that all the money in the world could be spent on Butte, and it still might not be enough to get to every single standard that you want to. So what's your perception of whether the money the parties are able to negotiate out of Atlantic Richfield is commensurate with their responsibility to 'do right by Butte?'

JS: I think the money has to be right otherwise there will be no deal. We're never going to know exactly how much all this is going to cost. All I know is that ARCO is footing the bill and the taxpayer in Butte is not. I think it will be a fair deal. There are limits to what the law can compel the responsible party to do. And in my view, the responsible party is going beyond what they would otherwise be ordered to because they want to do this on consent, and everybody agreed to do this on consent. So I think Butte is going to be a lot better off under a consent decree. I don't even concern myself with who's paying, because in my view, ARCO's paying for everything. It's all their money. I just want to make sure there's enough of it, so we get the maximum cleanup and protection of the resource. And Butte-Silver Bow taxpayers and ratepayers don't have to pay anything. And we're left with a bunch of cool things to use in town that we otherwise wouldn't have.

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