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Butte Superfund Officials Detail Stormwater Treatment Efforts

Eric Hassler (L) and Jon Sesso (R) are Butte-Silver Bow's Superfund operations manager and coordinator, pictured here at Catch Basin 8. May 28, 2019.
Nora Saks
Eric Hassler (L) and Jon Sesso (R) are Butte-Silver Bow's Superfund operations manager and coordinator, pictured here at Catch Basin 8. May 28, 2019.

The deadline for comments on EPA’s proposed changes to Butte’s Superfund cleanup is fast approaching. MTPR's Nora Saks went in the field with two of Butte-Silver Bow’s Superfund staff to find out more about the county’s take on the plan, their role, and what stormwater’s got to do with it.

I’m at the bottom of the Butte Hill, under an overpass to the interstate, standing next to what looks suspiciously like a pond. Willows sprout with neon green buds. Ducks paddle in circles. But Eric Hassler is distracted by a mysterious wake in the water.

Hassler is the Superfund operations manager for Butte-Silver Bow. And while this area resembles a natural wetland, to Hassler and his crew, it’s known as "CB8."

“Catch Basin 8” is connected to a shallow cement forebay and a 48 inch culvert jutting out of the ground. This series of man-made pipes, pools and channels is part of an extensive system designed to capture and hold stormwater running off the steep Butte hill. The passive retention allows sediment, like the pile of sand and grit in front of us, to drop out, before it reaches the first mile of Silver Bow Creek that runs through town.

This culvert and forebay pictured on May 28, 2019 are part of Butte's stormwater capture and treatment system, which will be expanded and completed in the  Superfund cleanup plan.
Credit Nora Saks
Montana Public Radio
This culvert and forebay are part of Butte's stormwater capture and treatment and system, which will be expanded and completed in the proposed Superfund cleanup plan. May 28, 2019.

"And this is sediment that is most likely to have elevated metals," says county Superfund Coordinator Jon Sesso. "We’re talking about the whole suite really, but we’re looking for copper and zinc. Those are the two that we have the most trouble meeting standard down on the end of the creek."

Sesso says contaminated stormwater is the main driver behind the changes EPA seeks to make to the 2006 Superfund cleanup plan for the Butte Hill and creek corridor. This “proposed plan” is the backbone of the long awaited final Superfund deal currently under negotiation by EPA, the state of Montana, the county, and Atlantic Richfield.

Related: Richest Hill: A podcast about the past, present and future of one of America's biggest Superfund sites.

Stormwater is also the reason Butte’s local government has a seat at the negotiating table. Under Superfund law, since the municipal stormwater system transports historic mining pollution, the county is responsible for cleaning it up.

"Our job is to make sure there's fewer and fewer and fewer sediments, and metals in those sediments, from reaching Silver Bow Creek," Sesso says.

In 2006, the county cut a deal with Atlantic Richfield: Butte-Silver Bow does the stormwater cleanup work and maintenance, forever, and the company picks up the tab.

But Sesso says that while Butte’s local government wants the best possible Superfund cleanup, it needs to mesh with their other responsibilities, like complying with federal clean water laws. If it doesn’t, the county could be held liable for fines or work to improve water quality, both of which could end up costing local taxpayers a lot of money.

"Environmental regulations just get more stringent. We gotta sorta try to see the future on what’s gonna happen under state and federal law."

Sesso says over the last 20 plus years, the county has come a long way in controlling stormwater pollution, but they’re not done yet. So far, they’ve capped about 600 acres of what used to be barren mine waste on the Richest Hill on Earth, to prevent water from coming in contact with contaminated soils and indigenous metals. They’ve installed thousands of feet of curb and gutter to divert stormwater, and around three dozen different devices to treat it.

"Now we’ve got this system of sed basins and catch bays in place, and we’ve eliminated 90, 93% of the sediments reaching the creek, and we’re striving for more. So we have not ever compromised water quality or a safe remedy. And in this proposed plan that’s ahead of us, we think we’re actually going the extra mile to get more sediment."

Overall, the county supports EPA’s new plan, which outlines $100 million dollars of additional cleanup work. County Superfund Operations Manager Eric Hassler says that includes expanding and completing Butte’s stormwater capture and treatment system.

"So we'll be able to eliminate those other drainages that are currently not treated, if you will, and put them into passive treatments like we're standing at today."

The plan also proposes to put vegetative caps on about 60 more acres on the Hill that never got touched and fix caps that are failing. Again, Jon Sesso.

"Basically 10 percent we gotta go back and make better. They just have to be improved because they were insufficiently reclaimed in the first place."

The amended cleanup plan also calls for filling in gaps in the groundwater capture system, and removing more mine tailings from the creek corridor. As well as remediating and restoring portions of Blacktail and Silver Bow Creeks and creating a 120 acre park there.

But the fundamental change on the table is to waive some state water quality standards in Butte’s creeks, and replace them with federal ones. That waiver would be just for copper and zinc during storm events, after the work is completed.

County Superfund coordinator Jon Sesso.

"We get the waiver on the total recoverable standard, because we believe that no matter how well we do with this series of sed basins and what have you, we're still gonna have some sediments reaching Silver Bow Creek," Sesso says.

I asked him if needing a waiver means Butte is settling for lower standards at the headwaters.

"We’re not settling for anything. We are not compromising water quality. We are gonna deliver water that is as clean and is as free of copper and zinc during storms as practically possible. At the same time, I just have to say that people have to understand that we are so far ahead of where we were when we started this project, that missing it by a little is not hurting the stream. I would also tell the folks that are concerned that we are well past any concern about human health associated with stormwater. This is strictly about the fish now."

He points out that this waiver is not setting a precedent. Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality uses EPA’s federal standard elsewhere in the Superfund cleanup of the Clark Fork River downstream.

"So what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Everybody recognizes that you are being protective if you meet the dissolved federal standard."

EPA is also proposing to expand the Residential Metals Abatement Program, which samples and cleans up peoples’ yards and attics contaminated with lead and arsenic. Hassler says expanding it is a win, but the county wants EPA to re-evaluate the science on action levels that trigger cleanup, to make sure the program is protecting human health and eliminating exposure to heavy metals.

"We have some questions, I would say in that regard, we want to hear a little more about it than we have to date."

Butte-Silver Bow also wants EPA to provide clearer direction on human health studies, and require them in the updated cleanup plan. There are a few more tweaks the county wants to make and issues they want addressed, but Sesso says overall, "We’re kind of proud of the final product. We think it finds that sweet spot between what's practical, and the protective remedy for the long haul for the aquatic environment in our beloved Silver Bow Creek."

After more than three decades of Superfund, Sesso feels it’s time to make decisions, and move on. County staffer Eric Hassler agrees, and says he hopes Butte is, "Becoming the living classroom for how to do this kind of work, in all aspects environmental. I mean, we have had to address so many different varieties of contamination and where it’s going, from water to the air to the soil. We know what not do now, and we know how to fix it, so kinda come learn from us."

Butte-Silver Bow plans to submit its formal comments on EPA’s proposed planby the June 11 deadline. Meanwhile, the county, state, EPA, and Atlantic Richfield continue to hammer out the final details of the legally binding Superfund deal, with a goal of having it done this summer.

But before Butte-Silver Bow can sign the that deal, called a consent decree, the council of commissioners has to approve it. Jon Sesso says that vote doesn’t have to be unanimous, but he wants to make sure every commissioner unanimously understands what they’re agreeing to for the community.

"I have learned that there are no plans and no decisions that are so perfect that they can't be improved. And I’ve also learned that there is no plan that you can devise that will satisfy everybody. It just doesn’t happen. So you do the best you can informing decision makers, and you live with their decisions."

Find more details on EPA’s proposed changes to Butte’s Superfund cleanup plan.

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