Butte artist hopes to bring more voices to the Superfund cleanup discussion
Dave Hutchins clearly remembers the first time he was struck by the artistic potential of the Northside Tailings Dump in Butte.
“I was riding my bike by here on this trail, looked down and saw the bright blue salts. And that began a long fascination with this place,” Hutchins said.
The area looks like a small chunk of an alien planet dropped right on the edge of a residential neighborhood. A patch of barren, yellowish earth contrasted with flashes of bright turquoise; the result of heavy metals in the soil that react with oxygen and turn puddles and animal bones blue.
The tailings lie along the Silver Bow Creek corridor, which for decades was used as a waste dump by Butte’s mines. This patch is one of the only ones still left exposed.
Hutchins was inspired by the surreal beauty and acute toxicity of the tailings.
“You look around here and right now we’re seeing these blue-green puddles, the color palette is outstanding, there’s this mosaic of broken glass in the mud and it really is beautiful. But then you also see a bike track going through it and realize that kids are playing in this,” Hutchins said.
With grant assistance from the University of Montana’s Co-Lab for Civic Imagination, Hutchins created an art installation called Interference Patterns. It went up for one day on September 23, inside the tailings dump and includes a sculpture collection of scavenged metal, blue bones, technical documents and historic photos. Hutchins said the installation focuses on the intersection between art, science and activism.
The result was a hit with viewers, including Sarah Rowley.
“I think Dave’s work is very sophisticated insofar as found object and material and metal. And … I dig it,” Rowely said.
Hutchins has been enmeshed with Butte’s clean-up for over a decade. Both in official and unofficial capacities as a researcher and a resident. An undercurrent to his experience is frustration with the EPA’s public participation program. Hutchins believes the agency has continually failed to take Buttians’ comments and concerns over the cleanup seriously.
One of the most pointed pieces in the installation features a mechanical hand underneath a sign touting the EPA’s new public comment portal. Visitors crank a gear handle and the hand dings a service bell that plays audio on a loop.
“That’s former EPA Director Doug Benevento just answering every question ‘we believe it’s protective of human health and the environment,’” Hutchins said.
2023 has been an especially tough year for the EPA’s public image in town. In February, emails published by InvestigateWest showed a collaborative effort between local EPA leaders and mining companies to discredit researchers, including Hutchins, who were studying public health risks caused by mine contamination.
The report caused a firestorm locally and pushed the EPA to publicly “reaffirm its commitment to professionalism in Butte.” The agency has hired additional public relations staff for the site and launched a monthly Superfund newsletter, efforts it said will improve community engagement.
Regional Administrator KC Becker also referred the allegations to the agency’s inspector general. A spokesperson for the EPA Office of Inspector General told MTPR they could not “announce, confirm, nor deny the existence of an investigation” into the conduct in Butte.
As far as Hutchins is concerned, the agency’s renewed efforts amount to little more than lip service.
“Well, I have seen them speak to that, but I haven’t seen any actual effect on the process,” Hutchins said.
Sarah Rowley, the visitor at the installation, agrees.
“It’s a big undertaking, but I think we can do better,” Rowley said.
With his installation, Hutchins hopes to cut through technical jargon and bureaucracy to bring the Superfund process back down to earth.
“I really love that they’re here to look at my art, but the main point was to bring them down here to this place,” Hutchins said. “I’ve found that most people in Butte don’t even know that this exists. I wanted to see people that aren’t showing up to the EPA meetings, talking about what it means to get this place cleaned up.”
Hutchins said he hopes to find other, less toxic places to display his sculptures. For the time being, they are up at the Butte Bike Lab.