The Environmental Protection Agency’s second in command returned to Butte and Anaconda this week to celebrate major milestones in their decades-long Superfund cleanups and talk about next steps.
"I guess we just take a shovel, guys, and that’s the way she goes!"
With that cue from Anaconda’s Chief Executive Officer Bill Everett, the ground was broken for a new $10 million hotel complex being built at the gateway to the Smelter City.
Doug Benevento was one of the guys in a hard hat and suit on that blustery Tuesday morning, making the ceremonial dirt fly.
"It breaks your heart when you understand that the work that needed to be done to clean up the communities, to protect public health, had not gone as quickly as it could. So I’m proud that I could work with the communities, that their passion made the difference, that their leadership in the state made the difference in moving EPA forward."
Formerly the EPA’s regional chief, Benevento is now the number two administrator in President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency. He’s widely credited with spurring action on some of Western Montana’s most complex and slowest moving Superfund cleanups, including the Anaconda Smelter Site, which has been underway since the early 1980s.
Benevento flew in from DC for the groundbreaking, because the hotel is actually one part of a wide-ranging Superfund settlement he helped Anaconda-Deer Lodge County and Atlantic Richfield achieve. The $28 million economic development package was approved in April.
U.S. Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who is up for reelection, said he also put pressure on top EPA officials to get the funding deal done.
"It's considered the largest economic stimulus here in 50 years," Daines said.
But the financial settlement between the county and former oil company is not the only sign of progress on Anaconda’s 300 square mile Superfund site.
After almost 40 years, the EPA, the state, the county, and Atlantic Richfield are months away from having a legally binding cleanup agreement, or consent decree, which will enshrine how the entire site will be managed forever.
"We still expect that there’s going to be a full consent decree by the end of the year," Benevento said.
Anaconda’s Chief Executive Bill Everett says the first priority for the cleanup work is expanding the attic dust program which removes toxic dust from people’s homes.
"We want to make sure your house is safe. That’s where you spend most of your time. We want to make sure when you’re eating your cheerios you don’t have to look up at your attic and say 'what the heck’s up there.'"
EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Benevento also visited the Mining City on Tuesday to celebrate an overarching Superfund cleanup deal for the Butte Hill and headwater streams, which was signed by a federal judge in September.
Benevento stressed that the consent decree is not the end.
"It’s not like, 'OK we’re done with that, now we’re going to leave, nothing’s ever going to happen again.' It’s really, I think, a beginning.
From now on, the Superfund parties will be in the design and implementation phases of major cleanup projects in the creek corridor and on the Hill. Decisions like where all of the old mine waste being hauled out of the floodplain will end up will have to be made in the next few years.
EPA officials said as the cleanup is rolled out, locals should keep holding their feet to the fire to make sure plans move forward. The agency plans to release a community engagement plan soon, and is encouraging residents to join the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, which will serve as a conduit.
Administrator Benevento says if all the remediation work happens on schedule, the EPA will keep its promise to start deleting portions of the Butte site from the Superfund National Priorities List in 2024. That’s important because it sends a strong signal that Butte is safe.
"When you remove a site, you lift a stigma off of a community. So if you’re Butte, the first question somebody asks you when they want to come here, is 'but you’re a Superfund site, what does that mean for my business? What does that mean for my employees?' That question is no longer on the table."
Shanna Adams, the co-owner of the Finlen Hotel in Uptown Butte, attended the EPA’s community meeting virtually on Tuesday. And she said thinking about the delisting was exciting.
"And I think it does kind of leave a void. If Butte is not a Superfund type town then what is it? It sort of leaves a vacuum for the community to come together and decide, this is how we see ourselves, this is how the outside world sees us, this is what we want Butte to be going forward."
Learn more about the past, present and future of Butte’s Superfund journey with Richest Hill. Listen here, or wherever you get your podcasts.