Montana Public Radio

EPA Hears Concerns Over Proposed Changes To Butte Hill, Silver Bow Creek Cleanup Plan

Apr 24, 2019

On Tuesday night, Butte residents got their first chance to respond to the changes EPA wants to make to the Superfund cleanup plan for the Butte Hill and Silver Bow Creek corridor. 

Martin Hestmark with the EPA’s regional office, explained to the 80 or so people at the public meeting at Montana Tech that the crux of the plan focuses on managing stormwater. It runs off the steep Butte Hill and contaminates Silver Bow and Blacktail Creeks in the valley below.

"The mineralogy and the topography of the Butte Hill is what created the Richest Hill on Earth. It’s also what creates stormwater that transports sediment containing those same minerals," Hestmark says.

So, in order to protect the creeks, the EPA is proposing to expand the cleanup beyond what was outlined in the original 2006 legal Record of Decision, or ROD, which governs it. The agency’s new plan calls for more stormwater catchment basins, improving the groundwater treatment system, and removing additional mine waste from the stream banks and floodplains.

But long time Superfund activist Sister Mary Jo McDonald is concerned about the most fundamental change on the table in EPA’s “proposed plan”.

"It seems to me that when you are recommending immediately to do a waiver on the quality of the water, that is too quick," McDonald says.

The waiver is EPA’s proposal to waive the state’s stringent standards for copper and zinc during storm events in Butte’s creeks, and replace them with federal ones. Nikia Greene, the local EPA project manager, says they threw all kinds of technical solutions at their model.

"I like to say, everything but the kitchen sink, and tried to figure out, ok, can we meet these standards? And the answer is no, we can’t."

The possibility of future waivers are also baked into the proposed plan if monitoring shows that even after the Superfund cleanup work is done state standards prove to be unachievable.

But most people who spoke up Tuesday night didn’t bring up the waivers. They were upset about the lack of a clear plan for a restored Upper Silver Bow Creek.

Evan Barrett, with the local Restore Our Creek Coalition, says space for a future creek should be in the ROD, which is equivalent to the Superfund constitution.

"That’s what needs to be done. Otherwise, all we’re operating on here — thank you all very much for the words — but they’re just words. Hollow words."

Right now, EPA, the state, county and Atlantic Richfield Company are in the middle of negotiating a final legally binding Superfund deal, or consent decree. These proposed ROD amendments are a critical piece of the deal which will implement the remedy and a lot more.

Fritz Daily, a local citizen and former state lawmaker, offered formal comment on EPA's proposed plan during a public meeting in Butte, April 23, 2019.
Credit Nora Saks / Montana Public Radio

Former state lawmaker Fritz Daily is among those who’ve been calling for a restored Silver Bow Creek for years. Addressing the Butte-Silver Bow commissioners in the audience, Daily said they’ll soon be making one of the most important decisions ever facing the community.

"I’m more offended by the fact that the EPA is now telling us, 'if you don’t accept this inferior decision, what we’re going to do is give you a worse inferior decision'. I know that’s not good English, but that’s what we’re doing."

But an EPA attorney said that while the agency is required to consider “community acceptance” of its cleanup plans, that’s a guideline, and there’s no real metric for measuring it.

For many locals, it can be hard to compartmentalize the complex history and issues surrounding mining and the Superfund cleanup here. On Tuesday they sounded-off on more than the specific plan EPA asked for comment on.

Don Pietritz is from McQueen, one of Butte’s neighborhoods that was lost to the Berkeley Pit.

"A number of you people probably don’t even know where McQueen was, because now it’s buried under tons of ore. But I just want to come up and say we deserve better and we deserve the best. We started this thing, and it’s now ending here, but it should have began here, 20 years ago."

John Ray, a professor at Montana Tech, was one of the few to express outright support for EPA’s proposed plan. He acknowledged some of its limitations, but said overall he thinks it and the consent decree will be good for Butte.

"There is a lot in the consent decree that the EPA could not order on its own," he said.

If the parties do not reach a consent decree this year and the EPA pivots to enforcing the cleanup through a unilateral order, "A lot of the amenities, a lot of the cleanup that we are going to get if we get this consent decree, would not be available. That’s not a threat, it’s a statement of fact," Ray said."

A second public meeting on EPA’s proposed plan is scheduled for May 23, and the 60 day public comment period ends June 11.