Montana Public Radio

EPA Announces $150M Final Superfund Deal To Clean Up Butte

Feb 18, 2020

The Environmental Protection Agency last week announced a final Superfund deal for Butte, detailing a roadmap they say will permanently clean up one of the most intractable Superfund sites in the country.

A crowd packed into the ornate ballroom at the old Finlen Hotel for the historic announcement that Butte now has a final cleanup agreement, after more than 30 years on the list of the most toxic sites in the nation.

Local Superfund coordinator Jon Sesso held up a huge white binder sandwiching more than 1000 pages of legal and technical documents in the deal.

"This is a day that I have just dreamed about, quite frankly, and sometimes thought would never come," said Sesso.

Butte has been the epicenter of one of America’s biggest industrial cleanup efforts since shortly after the federal Superfund law was enacted in 1980. It's one that snakes 120 miles down the Clark Fork River watershed.

Uptown Butte and the Summit Valley in Winter.
Credit Nora Saks / Montana Public Radio

The proud industrial city has suffered stigma from it ever since, something Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer hopes will now end.

"Welcome to the beginning of Butte’s future in the post Superfund era," Palmer said.

At one time the entire mountainside that Butte was built on, and where thousands of people still live, was smothered in orange and yellow mine dumps and completely barren from a century of copper mining. Local resident Rayelynn Brandl says as a kid, she thought all dirt was yellow.

"I always thought dirt looked like this ore body waste that we pull up. I didn’t know that dirt was brown and loamy and smelled good and you could grow things in it," Brandl said.

Pat Cunneen, who also grew up here, has memories of playing in the stretch of Silver Bow Creek running through town with his childhood buddies.

"Two days later your shoelaces are gone. And about a week later your shoes are gone. Because you fell in the creek. And it was full of acidic mine water," said Cunneen.

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.
Credit Nora Saks / Montana Public Radio

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

The scale of contamination is so vast here because of the scale of copper mining in Butte. People here will tell you this mountain of metal made the bullets that won world wars one and two and electrified America. And they’re not exaggerating.

Local historian Dick Gibson says "Almost certainly, somewhere between one-third and one-quarter of all the copper produced on planet Earth, from about 1905 to 1917, came from Butte. Not Montana. But Butte."

But by the early 1980s, all of the underground mine shafts and tunnels and the colossal Berkeley Pit had been abandoned by Atlantic Richfield, the successor to the Anaconda Mining Company. Mary Kay Craig is one of the dedicated locals that’s been agitating for a permanent cleanup ever since.

"Butte deserves what the constitution of the state of Montana says we deserve: and that is a clean and healthful environment, period," said Craig.

A lot of cleanup work has been done since the 1980s. The once treeless, mine waste covered Butte Hill now sprouts green grass and the floodplain below is no longer a moonscape of mine tailings. There’s plenty more to do, especially to improve water quality. But a final cleanup deal kept stalling out.

EPA Region 8 Administrator Greg Sopkin says this new agreement will get the cleanup over the finish line

"Today we are announcing and we are celebrating a proposal that will help bring closure to nearly four decades of Superfund activity in Butte," said Sopkin.

The clean up deal on the table is the result of high stakes negotiations between EPA, state and local governments, and oil company Atlantic Richfield, now a subsidiary of energy giant BP.

It commits Atlantic Richfield to spend more than $150 million dollars to remove tons of mine waste buried near Silver Bow Creek, capture and treat more dirty stormwater and groundwater, and maintain environmental protections for Butte’s soil and water forever. It also promises to transform Butte’s urban creek corridor into a 120 acre park and greenspace.

And it came about, in large part, because of the Trump Administration. In 2017, Trump’s EPA put Butte on a priority list of 21 Superfund sites, targeted for “immediate and intense attention,”, and pressured the parties to reach a final deal.

Independent Superfund expert Kate Probst says getting to that deal, or consent decree, at a site like Butte is an accomplishment, but it needs to be viewed from a big picture perspective.

"I would argue since there’s 1700 plus sites, of which over 1300 have not achieved their cleanup goals, and over 500 have not actually implemented their cleanups, that addressing 21 sites is not really a very successful program," said Probst.

Last week, President Trump proposed to slash EPA’s budget by more than a quarter, and the Superfund program by more than $100 million dollars. Probst says Superfund has suffered from inadequate funding for a long time.

"If this was really a priority for the administration, one would think that they would certainly not cut funds, and they might actually increase funding for the program," Probst said. 

Congress hasn’t weighed in on President Trump’s proposed EPA cuts yet, but Butte’s cleanup would likely not be affected because an oil company is responsible for funding it, not taxpayers. That’s not the case for every Superfund site.

The consent decree ceremony at the Finlen Hotel attracted a number of locals and government officials. February 13, 2020.
Credit Nick Mott / Montana Public Radio

After the announcement Thursday, Northey Tretheway with the local Restore Our Creek Coalition said the deal is good news overall.

"But it’s important to make sure that the things they’re gonna do to make the community a better place in the future is conducted in the right way," said Tretheway.

Butte-Silver Bow’s council of commissioners has to now vote to approve the Superfund deal before it can be submitted to a federal court for review.

See Butte's Superfund consent decree