Montana Public Radio

Experts Address Butte's Superfund Cleanup, Activists' Concerns

Nov 1, 2018

At sunrise on Halloween, the Butte Archives conference room was full of dozens of people dressed not in scary costumes - but in suits.

All of the major players who are brokering Butte’s final Superfund cleanup deal were there - including elected officials, top staff and attorneys from local and state government, Atlantic Richfield Company, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Their goal was to make peace with the most prominent activist group in town, the Restore Our Creek Coalition, or ROCC.

“So we want to hear from you all today. We are seeking support today. I think we do want to move to the next step on this. It’s not the final step,” says Doug Benevento, the EPA Region 8 Administrator, addressing a handful of ROCC’s core members in the room.

Over the last few years, ROCC has been calling on Superfund decision-makers to adopt their crowd-sourced vision of a restored Upper Silver Bow Creek flowing through the heart of town. They’ve gotten more vocal this year, as the major players appear to be closing in on a final agreement.

And, the Coalition is having an impact. At the meeting, the players’ technical and legal experts addressed a list of the activists’ questions and concerns one by one.

Mary Kay Craig, a long time Superfund agitator, and two-time cancer survivor, voiced concern about the planned stormwater basins that will occupy a chunk of the creek corridor - and the possibility of coming into contact with contaminated runoff.

“I think that I really, really want to make sure kids are safe," Craig says. "When I was a kid, we weren’t safe. We did whatever we wanted. So I just say - this is the one chance, the only chance, to make things right by the people in Butte, and I want the kids to be safe.”

Representatives from Atlantic Richfield, the company on the hook for the lion’s share of the cleanup, said that safety was also their primary concern.

They shared the latest details of the proposed cleanup and restoration plan for the city’s creek corridors. After the mine waste is removed, it calls for a system of parks, wetlands, a fishing pond and meandering creek-like channels.

Some features are there to manage dirty surface and groundwater, others are just for recreation. There is dedicated space for a possible future creek, but it’s nowhere on the map.

Members of the local Restore Our Creek Coalition met with elected officials, top staff and attorneys from local and state government and Atlantic Richfield Company, and the Environmental Protection Agency at a meeting at the Butte Archives. October 31, 2018.
Credit Nora Saks / MTPR

“You’ve done a tremendous amount of work to get us part way there," says ROCC spokesperson Northey Tretheway. "But I don’t think there’s a creek yet. What we’d like to see is, could there be something that shows, hey, if there’s a chance, in 50 years, when things go a certain way - there could be something there. If you could show something like that - not to commit you to it.”

That’s a less strident tone from the activists who’ve demanded that a free-flowing creek be part of any final clean up plan. They’re now saying that they still want to see that conceptualized in the final plan, and in writing, as an assurance it could happen one day.

In response to this latest ask, which raised a few eyebrows, Atlantic Richfield Vice President Patricia Gallery said they would consider it, but would need to make it clear that it’s not part of the remedy they’re paying for. And just as concerned community members want to look 50 years out, so does the company. 

“I have an obligation to Atlantic Richfield to make sure that we’re not committing something that we don’t know what we’re committing to," Gallery says. "I’m happy here with the end land use that we’re proposing to do. We think that it meets what Restore Our Creek and others have asked for. I’m hearing something slightly more today, so I think we need to talk about that internally.”

EPA officials and local government officials suggested that this type of informal, smaller meeting could be a model to work with community members going forward.

Which brings up questions of transparency in the Superfund decision-making process. This meeting was convened by the state, on behalf of all of the parties, in response to Restore Our Creek’s itemized list of concerns. There was a handpicked invitation list. Press was not officially notified, though not turned away.

Afterward, I spoke with EPA Administrator Benevento about how the EPA balances inclusion with expediency - making room for regular folks in high-level discussions, while at the same time trying to make decisions on a timeline. He said while they need to keep moving forward with Butte’s cleanup in order to regain some credibility here, they’ll show up wherever they’re asked to go. And here, the Restore Our Creek Coalition has been reaching out, over and over.

“I would like for you to pause for a moment and reflect upon what just happened in that room," Benevento says. "You had the federal government, you had the state government, you had the local government, you had a major corporation. All sitting around a table, listening to a community group in Butte tell us what was good and what was bad and getting serious feedback and serious dialogue on it. This is the way it’s supposed to work. There’s nothing more American than this.”

EPA officials say there will be formal public comment periods for both the proposed cleanup plan and the consent decree, if and when a deal is reached.