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EPA Disappoints Silver Bow Creek Advocates In Butte

Members of the grassroots Restore Our Creek Coalition express concerns about their vision for a reconstructed Upper Silver Bow Creek to EPA officials at a meeting at the Butte Chamber of Commerce. At left is Montana Standard Reporter Susan Dunlap
Nora Saks
Members of the grassroots Restore Our Creek Coalition express concerns about their vision for a reconstructed Upper Silver Bow Creek to EPA officials at a meeting at the Butte Chamber of Commerce. At left is Montana Standard Reporter Susan Dunlap

EPA officials met with some of Butte’s most vocal Superfund cleanup activists Tuesday to update them on the activists’ goal to restore Upper Silver Bow Creek.

For years, members of the local Restore Our Creek Coalition have been saying that Butte’s Superfund cleanup won’t be complete unless Upper Silver Bow Creek is re-constructed as a free-flowing stream where kids can fish and play, after nearly a century of serving as a wastewater ditch.

But during a meeting at the Butte Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Joe Vranka, EPA’s Superfund chief in Montana, reiterated that the agency doesn’t have the authority to force Atlantic Richfield, the company on the hook for most of the cleanup, to do that.

"What we’re struggling with here is this piece, that Restore Our Creek is extremely interested in, for this creek," Vranka said. We’re pushing up against the limits of what the others parties are willing to agree to."

Vranka says the agency has been working closely with Atlantic Richfield and it’s other partners in the Superfund cleanup - the State of Montana and Butte-Silver Bow County - to make sure that the final, legally binding cleanup deal currently in the final stages of negotiation doesn’t prevent the Coalition’s dream of a creek from one day becoming a reality.

In April, five months after the Coalition sent the partners in the cleanup a series of specific concerns and asks, the parties responded with a letter outlining a path forward. It announced that under the deal currently on the table, the state intends to set aside some designated funds for a future lined creek in the corridor. The letter also identified potential areas for such a creek, and emphasized the amenities Atlantic Richfield has committed to funding in the redesigned greenway, including a fishing pond and recirculating waterways.

"We got something out that we thought, while it didn’t go fully to address everything Restore Our Creek wanted in that vision document, we thought it got a long way there, and certainly well beyond what EPA has the authority to require under Superfund," said Vranka.

Which is why he says EPA officials were “surprised” when the Restore Our Creek Coalition said the parties’ plan is just, as long time Superfund activist Sister Mary Jo MacDonald put it: "Promises, promises, promises."

The activists responded by saying the plan falls short, because it lacks a clear conceptual design of where a future creek could go. In early May, all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation sent letters to EPA, rallying behind the coalition’s demands for a creek.

In response, EPA and its Superfund cleanup partners sent the delegation and the Coalition another letter Monday night. It expanded on their last one, but went further in designating a location for a stream, and committing the parties to end land use development that would dovetail with the future creek.

But the parties again denied the coalition’s request to do a formal feasibility study for a restored creek, something that seriously disappointed member Evan Barrett at Tuesday’s meeting, because he wants to know if it can be done, and what obstacles there might be.

"Wouldn’t it be nice to know that now, and say well maybe if we modify something, we could do it?" Barrett asked. "But no, we’re being left to buy a pig in a poke right now on the creek."

Activists said that the cleanup partners’ latest letter represents headway, but they still want hard proof that their vision can someday be realized. They renewed the call to have a feasibility study done, whether by Atlantic Richfield or a third party. Barrett said without that kind of certainty, community acceptance is going to be hard to come by.

"Without that, it’s going to be tough," Barrett said. "It’s going to be tough for us to look people in the eye and say, they said trust us and I guess we’re just gonna have to trust them. Because the history of Butte is not to trust people who tell you what they’re going to be doing, because we’ve been violated for 150 years by powerful interests."

EPA officials said they’ll share the activists’ concerns and suggestions with the other negotiating parties, and Monday’s official letter is not the last word on the matter. The Restore Our Creek Coalition says they’re going to keep pressing for a restored creek before the final legal language is locked in.

The EPA has set the goal of finalizing Butte’s Superfund cleanup deal by mid-August.

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