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Former State Hydrogeologist Reacts To Proposed Butte Superfund Cleanup Changes

Retired hydrogeologist Joe Griffin stands next to a groundwater sampling well in Butte's Upper Silver Bow Creek corridor. January 24, 2018.
Nora Saks
Montana Public Radio
Retired hydrogeologist Joe Griffin stands next to a groundwater sampling well in Butte's Upper Silver Bow Creek corridor. January 24, 2018.

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency released the changes they want to make to the 2006 legal Record of Decision (ROD) which governs the Superfund cleanup of the Butte Hill and Upper Silver Bow Creek corridor.

This "proposed plan" is the framework of the final, larger Superfund deal currently being negotiated by EPA, the state of Montana, Butte-Silver Bow County, and Atlantic Richfield, the company on the hook for most of the cleanup.

Central to the plan is the proposal to waive some state water quality standards and replace them with federal ones. To understand what this means for Butte's creeks, I sat down with hydrogeologist Joe Griffin. He was the Montana Department of Environmental Quality's project manager for this Superfund site for over a decade, a technical adviser on the Anaconda Superfund cleanup, and a consultant for Atlantic Richfield before that. He retired in 2015 and now volunteers with the local Citizens Technical Environmental Committee.

Joe Griffin: It's hard for the public to understand why you would ever waive standards. But the critical piece here, the part that is critical for ARCO, really, is if they don't think they can meet a standard, they don't have much incentive to keep pushing forward on good remedy measures. And I think this proposed plan kind of skins that cat. It's not just the waiving of standards here — which are truly necessary — but it is finding the rest of what is legitimate remedy here and getting that written down. That is the real critical piece here. It is what allowed this to finally move forward after over 30 years, right?

Nora Saks: Can you explain what the difference is between the state and federal standards?

Griffin: In most simplistic terms there's two kinds of samples that they have to collect. One is an unfiltered sample and that's referred to as "total recoverable metals", so total recoverable copper for instance. And the other one is they filter the sample so they've taken out most of the particles that have metals adhering to those particles, and so you're dealing with a dissolve fraction. Dissolved copper affects fish gills directly. The sediment is a secondary route that may affect their gut, but it is not deadly the way dissolved is.

The EPA, when they established the standard, it was based on the dissolved. And the state of Montana is free to either accept the federal standard or they can come up with an even more stringent standard and they said 'the problem with the federal standard is it gives us no way to regulate the sediment fraction that is coming out of Butte, for instance, and so we're going to stick with that'. And so that's how they regulate most of Montana. Under Superfund, you kind of have to say this is the time to make a decision that we're going to have to stick with. Unless we really find out it was a big mistake, we're looking at keeping this. So it's sort of setting it in stone. And both in Butte and Anaconda I found they've been pretty careful about how they are waiving standards.

Saks: The EPA claims that the federal standards are protective for the creeks and for the aquatic life in them. Do you agree? Do you have any concerns about them?

Griffin: I do certainly agree. It's what I just kind of indicated. It is the dissolve fraction that has a direct effect. When you're looking at those secondary effects, it just really complicates things to an extent where it would be hard to actually make rational decisions in the long run.

Saks: So we're talking about a Technical Impracticability (TI) waiver. What are some of the criteria that go into deciding whether or not something is 'technically impracticable'? Is it really about engineering? Is it about how much money it would take to really solve the problem? Can you speak to that a little more?

Griffin: It's actually kind of a vague thing. It isn't written into law anywhere. It's guidance documents and it was originally written for groundwater. So there's not really an exact set way to do it, but it says from an engineering standpoint is it technically impracticable to meet that standard. But there is also a part in there that says is it inordinately costly. I think for the TI that's in front of us, it is not about cost. It is truly technically impracticable from an engineering standpoint.

Saks: For a while you've been making the case that stormwater is the biggest remedy challenge in Butte. Let's talk about why.

Griffin: Atlantic Richfield and EPA have collected immense amounts of data on stormwater and they've also done a lot of work to control stormwater. To start with, capping over 500 acres. So more than a square mile of capping individual dumps which prevents stormwater runoff from getting to the creeks. So that was a big step.

There are a number of other things they have done, but one of the best, truly, was building stormwater retention ponds. So these are just, they're truly ponds, but they hold water back to a certain extent and then obviously as you have more and more storms it starts releasing water. What we found was that for copper, for total recoverable copper, so it includes the particulate part, these ponds were removing about 95 percent of that copper. That's pretty impressive for a passive treatment system. Matter of fact, it's real impressive.

That was kind of the catch, in a large part, was this trade off; for ARCO, we don't think we can ever meet standards. And for DEQ and EPA, we still haven't put stormwater ponds in the places we think they are really needed still. That was honestly the crux of getting to this Consent Decree was applying remedy measures that DEQ certainly believed were the best way to go.

You know in all of the work we've done, we still don't really understand all the mechanisms of why there is so much metal in the storm sewer system. What you're left with is 'OK, but what do we do to effect a better remedy'? Some of the questions that I've heard in the past are why can't we do more on the Hill? Well it just turns out you can't. You need to treat it with these ponds right before it goes into the creek.

Saks: Joe, what's your take on whether this cleanup plan holds the parties responsible for doing the best possible cleanup in Butte?

Griffin: I've been working on this since 2004 and I honestly think we were working towards almost all of what's in this current proposed plan. I think this really is about as good as it could be. You have to understand, Nora, that if the Consent Decree is signed it sort of sets some of it in stone, but there are still things to be worked out. It is a negotiated thing where ARCO will get these waivers and perhaps some additional waivers, but it also came down to 'we finally can see with some clarity what remains to be done'. And there are big chunks in there that EPA is requiring get done. So once it's signed it'll be: here's the work, we want you to get it done. We'll see how well that worked, then we'll ask questions: did you really do an adequate job on this? Are there things that we missed? And then there may be additional waivers, but it's a process, Nora, that after 28 years of working in this process I do see that it is a very legitimate process and I think we have reached the ultimate end of the process. So to me this really hits it.

Saks: Joe Griffin is a retired hydrogeologist with decades of experience on Superfund cleanup efforts in Butte and Anaconda.

Find more information on the EPA's proposed changes to the Record of Decision including the public comment period that ends June 11.

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