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Butte's Local Government Approves $150 Million Superfund Cleanup

The historic Silver Bow Creek channel in Butte was an industrial sewer for over a century, and now conveys storm water seasonally. February 15, 2018.
Nora Saks
Montana Public Radio
The historic Silver Bow Creek channel in Butte was an industrial sewer for over a century, and now conveys storm water seasonally.

Butte’s local government approved an overarching $150 million Superfund cleanup deal on Wednesday. This marks a new chapter for the Mining City, which has been on the nation’s list of most toxic sites since the 1980s.

Just before Butte-Silver Bow’s council of commissioners voted on the Superfund deal during a virtual council meeting, Commissioner Michele Shea spoke about the gravity of the occasion.

“We’re preparing to make the most monumental decision to ever affect the future of our great city,” she said.

That’s because this agreement, or “consent decree,” lays out a blueprint for finishing the decades-long mine waste cleanup of the Butte Hill and urban creeks. It also guarantees Butte’s industrial creek corridor will be transformed into a 120-acre greenway with ponds and walking trails.

Jon Sesso, Butte’s Superfund coordinator, acknowledged that the settlement - between the county, the state, the Environmental Protection Agency and Atlantic Richfield - isn’t perfect. But he says it locks in a legal framework that will hold the former oil company responsible for $150 million more of cleanup work.

“We’re set up well for the future, we’ve got the money, ARCO’s paying for everything and I think it’s time to go ahead and let the chief sign this document and move it forward, Mr. Chairman,” he said.

Butte’s Superfund parties spent two years hashing out the details of the 1,100 page consent decree, which was unveiled to the public in February.

[Related: Richest Hill - a podcast about the past, present and future of one of America's most notorious Superfund sites]

There’s a vocal contingent in Butte who maintain the deal does not go far enough because it will not rebuild the very upper stretch of the Silver Bow Creek channel into a free-flowing stream.

However, the vast majority of public comments received at virtual meetings over the last month and a half were in support of the county approving the cleanup deal.

Retired hydrogeologist Joe Griffin said Wednesday that this agreement won’t just be good for Butte and its headwaters, it will help restore the Clark Fork River basin as a whole.

“This is a milestone moment for us all, and it will echo through time and across the watershed,” he said.

As soon as Butte’s chief executive signs the consent decree, it will be lodged with a federal district court, which will trigger a formal 30 day public comment period.

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