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Butte residents are skeptical of the EPA's Silver Bow Creek cleanup plan

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

Community members in Butte are skeptical of a plan from federal environmental regulators to clean up Silver Bow Creek while leaving some contaminated dirt in place. Locals questioned Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials about the plan this week.

The EPA’s plan to clean up areas around Silver Bow Creek would leave soil with traces of toxic heavy metals in the ground.

Nikia Greene is the EPA’s project manager at the site. He said at a community meeting Wednesday it would be infeasible to remove all contamination from a site that sits atop a massive metal ore body.

“Sites like Butte, it’s just not feasible to get rid of everything because everything has metals in it,” Greene said.

EPA officials said the so-called ‘gray dirt’ with traces of toxic metals will be rigorously sampled and placed underneath an 18-inch cap to prevent exposure.

While Greene and an agency toxicologist assured the gathered public that using the material would not pose a risk to human health or the environment, Buttians in the room were largely skeptical of a plan they felt cut corners to save time and money.

Don Petritz appealed to the officials present to put themselves into the locals shoes and carry out a cleanup Butte could trust for generations.

“If you lived here, would you want your grandchildren playing in those parks, playing along that riverbed? That’s all we’re asking from you people,” Petritz said.

Buttians’ trust in the EPA was shaken this year after allegations surfaced in February that local officials improperly colluded with mining companies in attempts to discredit scientists studying health problems in the community. Regional EPA leaders have referred those allegations to the agency’s inspector general.

The EPA hired an independent facilitator to mediate the gathering on Wednesday.

The agency plans to make a final decision on use of the “gray dirt” in September.

John joined the Montana Public Radio team in August 2022. Born and raised in Helena, he graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Media Arts and created the Montana history podcast Land Grab. John can be contacted at
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