Montana Public Radio

Butte Meeting Reveals Divisions Over Proposed Superfund Cleanup Changes

May 24, 2019

On Thursday night, Ian Magruder stood up in front of a crowd of about 100 at the Montana Tech Library Auditorium in Butte and addressed a panel of officials from the state and federal environmental protection agencies.

"I stood here in this room 15 years ago and railed against the EPA for their proposed plan at the time. And I thought it was a joke. Today I feel differently."

Magruder, a hydrogeologist, was one of 21 people who gave formal public comment at a three hour long meeting on EPA’s "proposed plan," which is the backbone of the final Superfund cleanup deal currently under negotiation by EPA, the state, Butte-Silver Bow County, and Atlantic Richfield.

The plan outlines a suite of changes the agency wants to make to the legally binding Superfund cleanup decision for the Butte Hill written in 2006. This new plan calls for removing additional mine waste from the creek corridors in town, installing more catch basins to treat dirty stormwater, and restoring portions of Upper Silver Bow and Blacktail creeks. It also proposes waiving some state water quality standards in the creeks and replacing them with federal ones.

After listening to EPA’s presentation, Janet Lindh, who’s on the county planning board, was skeptical.

"I’ve heard the words 'hope,' 'anticipate,' 'expect.' I don’t hear we’re going to guarantee that this is going to take care of these problems. With that in mind, I want to know what plan B is."

EPA asked for feedback only on the nuts and bolts of the plan. But just like at the first meeting on it held last month, many Butte locals didn’t want to be told to color inside the lines. Their responses revealed a number of highly technical concerns and a wide range of emotions, from excitement to outrage.

The issue of if and how to reconstruct and restore all of Upper Silver Bow Creek continued to surface as a bone of contention.

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

Brad Newman is the former district judge who presided over the 2015 Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition’s case. That case successfully established the creek as a water of the state, not a storm drain, a function it’s served for nearly a century.

"That decision is legal precedent," Newman says. "That decision binds the state of Montana to recognize Silver Bow Creek as a natural watercourse. And so when I hear about a proposal that talks about recycling water, that doesn’t sound like a free flowing natural watercourse. I think that that proposal is inconsistent with the law that establishes that Silver Bow Creek is a natural watercourse."

Matt Paffhausen a commercial insurance agent, said he wants to see Butte taken off the Superfund National Priorities List. May 23, 2019.
Credit Nora Saks / Monana Public Radio

But several people at the meeting argued that plenty of concessions had been made towards a creek, and that it’s time to focus on the bigger picture of Butte’s future.

"I also ask the public not to fall victim to what I consider to be factually uncorroborated claims that we’re getting screwed as a community."

That’s insurance agent Matt Paffhausen, who said that after more than 30 years as a Superfund site, it’s time to finish the cleanup and get Butte delisted so the city can grow.

"So I’m not sure which foot we’re standing on as a community: to get it done or drag it out."

EPA’s new plan also calls for expanding the Residential Metals Abatement Program, which tests and cleans up attics and yards that are found to be contaminated with lead and arsenic.

Barbara Miller with Habitat for Humanity says it’s great to clean up more properties, but the action level that triggers cleanup for lead here is too high. Miller says all the amazing work done so far, "Is going to go to waste if there’s no trust in your final number, no trust in your action level as far as lead level for children. If you leave a lead level of 1,200 parts per million — which is three times the HUD maximum for housing that has children in it — you’re dooming the town to have no confidence for newcomers, because why can’t you even meet basic HUD standards?"

Questions of how well human health in Butte is being protected came up repeatedly. A number of residents lobbied the EPA to examine in future health studies the combined effects of exposure to multiple heavy metals.

Others critiqued the gag-order that prevented the public from knowing what was going on with cleanup negotiations for almost two decades, and noted the pent up frustration at being sidelined from the process.

Former state lawmaker Fritz Daily reminded agency officials that Butte citizens are the real stakeholders.

Chris Wardell (L) with EPA Region 8 stands listening to former state lawmaker Fritz Daily comment on EPA's proposed cleanup plan for the Butte Hill. May 23, 2019.
Credit Nora Saks / Monana Public Radio

"This is the only opportunity that folks like me have the opportunity to say what I need to say, and what you need to hear — whether you like it or not — about what needs to be done for this community."

The EPA and its negotiating parties are racing to sign the final Superfund deal by mid-August, which hinges on the approval of this proposed cleanup plan. Given the deluge of feedback on it, local labor organizer Bob Brock issued a challenge.

"For the EPA in the room: buck your administrator. Tell him we appreciate the deadline, give us a little more time. We’re this close. And I really believe we are this close. But if you’re going to truly incorporate what you’ve heard, it’s going to take longer than two months."

EPA promises to provide a thorough "responsiveness summary" after the public comment period on the "proposed plan" ends June 11.

Find more information about the Butte Superfund cleanup.

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