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Atlantic Richfield Talks Butte Superfund Liability, Legacy

Loren Burmeister (L) and Josh Bryson (R) are the liability business manager and operations project manager for Atlantic Richfield in Butte, pictured outside the company's local headquarters. April 22, 2019
Nora Saks
Loren Burmeister (L) and Josh Bryson (R) are the liability business manager and operations project manager for Atlantic Richfield in Butte, pictured outside the company's local headquarters. April 22, 2019

After more than 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Montana and Butte Silver Bow County are close to signing a final Superfund deal with Atlantic Richfield for the cleanup of the Butte Hill and creek corridors in town. Atlantic Richfield, the former American oil giant, is the company on the hook for most of the pollution caused by historic mining and smelting operations in Butte and across the upper Clark Fork River basin.

To get some perspective on what AR has done in Butteand how it's approaching the legally binding cleanup deal, or consent decree, Nora Saks recently sat down with two of the company's staff on the ground in the Mining City.

Nora Saks: What is Atlantic Richfield's goal with the Superfund cleanup in Butte?

Loren Burmeister, liability business manager: Our ultimate endeavor with all of our cleanup actions throughout the Clark Fork Valley is protection of human health and the environment. We heavily evaluate all of the remedial technologies to try to select one that's the best fit for making sure that we are protecting human health and the environment.

Saks: Josh (Bryson, operations project manager), I'm pretty sure that at one of the meetings you said something along the lines of, the overarching goal is to close liability?

Josh Bryson, operations project manager: Well, we don't want to have these sites hanging over Atlantic Richfield in perpetuity. Not that we're not going to be here for a very, very long time and operating the sites, but we want to minimize the liabilities to the extent we can. So, if we know there has to be a cleanup done, Atlantic Richfield has always addressed those cleanups and we will in the future. It's the fact we want to minimize that capital spend and get to the operation stage of each project.

Saks: What made it possible for the company to reach this conceptual agreement for the consent decree? What's different now? What factors brought the company back to the negotiating table?

Burmeister: The parties all narrowed in on a list of alternatives that provide the best opportunity to clean up stormwater and provide re-use opportunities. And so with that narrowing of views on what else needed to be done, that really drove all parties to want to come back to the table and finalize this deal. And we chose based on the best science, and that's always our endeavor is to let the science drive the solution.

Saks: Why is the company agreeing to do more than just what is required? What is the incentive?

Bryson: I wouldn't say there's an incentive, but you can look at our past history and we've always done more. I mean, you look at Copper Mountain Sports Park and, you know, you've got four baseball fields up there, you have a gazebo, you have a little kids football field. You look at Mountain Con and Foreman's Park,  there's trails, there's interpretive features, so I wouldn't say that we're doing more. I'd say that this could be our last opportunity in Butte to leave a positive message for ourselves. To some extent I think we want to we want to take advantage of that opportunity and leave something that we're proud of. You know, Loren and I are citizens of Butte , we're gonna take our kids walking there too. So when I'm walking there I want to point something out and say, 'look at what dad did'. I think that's powerful.

Saks: Can you convince me that this cleanup that Atlantic Richfield is supporting and signing on to is really effective and significant and not just the lowest dollar amount?

Bryson: We'll have that opportunity after the remedy is installed to convince the public that it's effective and robust, and that's part of the program as it is. We have to operate and maintain our sites. We have to treat groundwater, and this is no different. So we're going to collect the groundwater that's underneath the surface. We're going to make sure the caps don't erode and spread waste down the hill. We're here to perform those obligations through time.

Burmeister: Part of our goal with the consent decree is to fully understand what the breadth of our liability is. It will say A, B, and C will be done as part of the final remedy. And that in itself has value to us. So it's more than just the financial value, it is having that certainty in what our final obligations are at the site. Our partner, who is Butte Silver Bow, Atlantic Richfield funds them to implement the remedy, but they really are a partner and the community itself is a partner, and one of BSB's major tenets is reuse of these areas. We really took that to heart, avoiding taking those areas away from public use, we've sought to find opportunities to incorporate our remedies with community amenities that everybody can hopefully enjoy.

Saks: How much has the company spent to date on the Superfund cleanup in the whole Upper Clark Fork River Basin?

Bryson: Over $1.4 billion. That includes remedy, restoration, settlements, all our work that we do here in Butte. The work that we self perform throughout Anaconda, Butte, our maintenance agreements with Butte-Silver Bow. It includes all costs.

Burmesiter: It extends from Butte Mine Flooding, starting basically at the [Berkeley] Pit, all the way down through Milltown and the removal of the Milltown dam.

Saks: What amount has been spent on the Butte Hill, or Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit?

Bryson: So, in Butte Priority Soils we've spent $280 million, last we checked. We've shown some other numbers that we're going to spend more. But with that $280 million, we've done quite a bit of work. We've reclaimed over 600 acres, moved or abated 8 million cubic yards of mine tailings, including one million yards out of Silver Bow Creek. So, we think it's been put to good use here in Butte, and look forward to this next chapter.

Saks: How much more will the company be spending in Butte Priority Soils?

Bryson: We expect to be $100 million dollars or above. We won't know the final number until we do the work and all the dust settles. But it's a safe number. And of course, like you said, that will include the amenities, the stormwater basins, and include the state's work that they'll do through the agreement at Blacktail Creek.

Burmeister: We'll also continue to work with Butte-Silver Bow to implement various portions of these long term programs, and so, the Residential Metals Abatement Program - we fully fund Butte-Silver Bow to implement that program. The Butte Reclamation Evaluation System, which really looks at the Butte Hill, the capping we've done and making sure that those caps remain functional and protective. We fully fund Butte-Silver Bow to do that. And we will obviously look for opportunities in the future to further fund them to perform certain scopes of work.

Saks: How does the consent decree and the company account for any future unanticipated costs or additional cleanup that might be needed in the future?

Burmeister: Atlantic Richfield is committed to performing the remedy that we're negotiating under the consent decree. And so long as we implement that remedy, we will continue to fund it and be responsible for it. EPA also requires what's called financial assurance, that EPA could come in tomorrow, take over this work and they would have funding in place for them to be able to do that, not on taxpayer dollars. Those dollars are wholly on Atlantic Richfield.

Saks: We talk a lot in Butte about 'in perpetuity' treatments. Forever is a long time, and as we've seen in Butte's history, corporations like the Anaconda Company come and go. What are the risks to the community for pinning these forever cleanups on a corporate entity for which there really is no financial upside to the holdings in Butte?

Burmeister: If we did not exist in 50 years, there will be a funding mechanism in place to allow EPA to come in and do that. But we will be here as long as necessary, or there will be a mechanism in place for as long as necessary, to ensure that the remedies are protective.

Bryson: Quite often I think you'll see a responsible party sell out, leave, default, whatever. We didn't do that. We've been here for 35 years and we'll continue to be. And for what benefit, you ask? Well, it's what we're responsible to. We read the letter of the law. We're held to it. We're accountable.

Saks: You guys obviously live here and are in the community a lot. Is there any one thing you want to tell the larger public just in terms of what's going on? Atlantic Richfield's stake in things?

Burmeister:  As a member of the Butte community raising my family here, I'm very excited to see the remedial components be finalized and be implemented. Which really gives the opportunity for kids to go write their bikes on trails and play on playgrounds, to have entertainment areas, you know, whether it's concerts or what have you. And most importantly it's going to allow Butte to say, 'the environment's clean. We're protecting our people were protecting the environment', and what's coming next, and start to look forward.

Bryson: If you look at Butte and its history and how perhaps we receive ourselves as residents, and how outside communities receive us, you look at the corridor that is blighted now, you know, devoid of life and activity. You know, if we get this plan done, in five to six years, seven years, I hope to see it's a thriving greenway. I hope to see kids out there on the trails. I hope to see people playing on the playground. People looking at the wetlands or the birds that are using it. I hope at some point people forget about Atlantic Richfiled, and we'll stop being in the paper. And we'll start talking about an event or the economic development that's out along the corridor, instead of what has been done in the past.

To learn more about Atlantic Richfield's involvement in Butte and its Superfund cleanup, check out our podcast Richest Hill at 

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