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Butte Superfund Parties Reach Agreement On Final Cleanup Deal

Mine headframes in uptown Butte, MT.
Josh Burnham
Mine headframes in uptown Butte, MT.

This week, the parties in charge of the Superfund cleanup of the Butte Hill and urban creek corridors agreed on a final cleanup deal, marking a turning point in the Mining City’s decades long Superfund saga.

Since the end of 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency, the state, county and former oil company Atlantic Richfield have been hashing out the details of a final, legally binding cleanup deal for the Superfund site known as Butte Priority Soils. That deal, or consent decree, will spell out exactly who is doing what and paying for each remaining puzzle piece of Butte’s extensive and ongoing mine waste cleanup.

On Thursday, EPA announced that the parties to that deal had successfully finished negotiations the night before, and finally put their "pens down." For Butte’s longtime Superfund coordinator Jon Sesso, that moment was full of joy and relief.

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

"I’m most excited about moving forward. We have languished far too long on quibbling over certain details, and now that we’ve got those details worked out we can start getting work done and move our community forward," Sesso says.

Depending on how you count, this day has been either 32, 13, or 2 years in coming. The entire Butte area was added to the existing Silver Bow Creek Superfund site back in 1987.

In 2006, the Superfund parties started brokering a final cleanup deal, but the confidential talks fell apart several times over the next decade.

Then, two years ago, a new regional EPA chief in the Trump Administration forced the parties back to the negotiating table. The pressure worked. In January 2018 they reached a "conceptual agreement," and revealed to the public last year parts of the cleanup plan in the works.

Since then, however, the parties have missed multiple deadlines set by EPA to finish-up the fine print. Sesso says it’s not the who and what, but the how involved with all the technical elements of the remedy that have taken additional time to hammer out.

[Learn more: Richest Hill:A Podcast About The Past, Present And Future Of Butte America]

"So there’s a lot of work that would normally have been after the consent decree was signed, that is now done beforehand. And I think that makes it that much stronger because now there’s no secrets. It’s not like, 'well what were we thinking?' You know, 'what were we going to do?' Now a lot of those specifics are incorporated right into the statement of work."

The draft consent decree announced this week still has a long way to go before it’s set in stone. The complex and highly technical deal now has to be reviewed and approved by senior officials at the Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Montana, Atlantic Richfield and Butte-Silver Bow.

Superfund coordinator Jon Sesso says once the higher-ups at DOJ and EPA sign off on the deal, he’ll have the greenlight to share more of its actual contents, including financial details, with the public and Butte-Silver Bow’s council of commissioners, who get to vote on whether or not to sign it.

"That probably will commence no later than a month from now and take as long as we need for us to feel comfortable that we’re making a decision based on an informed citizenry and an informed governing body," Sesso says.

But a group of activists in Butte focused on creating a free flowing first mile of Silver Bow Creek in the center of town wants the local government to take one more step.

Northey Tretheway is a spokesperson with the Restore Our Creek Coalition.

"It only makes common sense to make sure that this creek, that we’ve been so ardently working towards over the past four years with this community, that that potential still is there for that creek, just as they said it would be."

Restore Our Creek Coalition has been assured by the Superfund parties that the cleanup deal won’t prevent a creek in the future. The coalition is currently conducting an EPA funded study to, as they say, "prove" whether their vision of a meandering creek is in fact compatible with the new cleanup plan.

Now they’re asking Butte’s council of commissioners to wait until the results of their creek study are out in December before they vote on the final Superfund deal.

"All our point is, is that it’s better to have all the information up front before you sign-off, because you hate to see that something is not possible after the fact, after things signed, because then it’s harder to do something about," Tretheway says.

If and when the consent decree is approved by all of the Superfund parties, it will then be lodged with a federal court. Then it’s up to U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon to release it for a formal 30 day public comment period.

Learn more: Richest Hill:A Podcast About The Past, Present And Future Of Butte America

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