A citizen's group in Butte Thursday presented a comprehensive, crowd-sourced vision for what they'd like to see happen in the contaminated corridor of Silver Bow Creek. MTPR's Nora Saks talks to Montana Standard Editor David McCumber to find out the details.
Nora Saks: David McCumber, thanks for joining us again on Montana Public Radio to give us all the news from Butte.
David McCumber: Oh you're more than welcome Nora, thanks for having me.
NS: So another big Superfund-related meeting happened on Thursday at the Butte Archives, can you tell me what it was about?
DM: Nora, I think what happened on Thursday in Butte was really a pretty amazing thing. It's the culmination of something, in a way, and it's the beginning of something in another way.
There's a community group here called Restore Our Creek and this group, for well over a year now, has been advocating to clean up and restore an area of upper Silver Bow Creek, which is currently enormously polluted and basically empty space in the middle of Butte. So this group, since January, has been soliciting public opinion about what the space could look like if it were properly cleaned and restored. So now, what they've done after getting considerable public input, both from Butte as a whole, and also specifically from people who live nearby. They have taken that and synthesized it into a plan, or a vision, which they call Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Park. The finished document, the finished vision, was something they presented on Thursday to Shaun McGrath who is the EPA regional administrator, and also representatives of both state agencies involved in the Superfund cleanup here, and a representative of BP-ARCO.
NS: So David, what is their vision? What was in their plan?
DM: The key piece of it is a a restored and meandering free-flowing creek which would run where now there is basically a dry ditch. There are all kinds of areas for public activities, from picnic areas, to a sledding hill, to areas to walk and fish and just enjoy the outdoors. Also in their plan they presented was a "Center for the Western Environment," which would be an educational center, a policy center, even a think-tank. There were really many parts to it, and while there still are questions that remain, this didn't purport to be an engineered solution, this is much more a cry from the heart from the community. More of a vision for what this space, cleaned-up and restored, could be used for. I think the strength comes from the public whose ideas this represent.
NS: So how did the EPA official Shaun McGrath respond to it?
DM: He was, first of all, extraordinarily complimentary. He said that it could serve as a beacon to those who are negotiating just what will happen with this cleanup. He also said that elements of it might exceed EPA's authority or legal responsibility, and he said that EPA may need to "temper expectations" in Butte, which is sort of discouraging, because expectations have been pretty well tempered here for a long time.
NS: Let's go back to the plan for a second. How does this vision differ from the "waste in-place" philosophy, or effort that have been made?
DM: Well, the first thing this plan assumes is that the waste along the watercourse, from the Parrot tailings to the diggings east to the north-side tailings, would be cleaned. That the waste would be removed, the groundwater would be running through clean soil, that eventually that will help to clean the polluted parts of Silver Bow Creek downstream. So that's very different. Now the philosophy is, 'well, we'll leave all the waste there, and we'll just gather the groundwater and treat it, and then put it back into the flow.' A lot of people think that that's really not working well, and that contamination is spreading, and that a more thorough-going cleanup is necessary. That cleanup is sort of the beginning point of this plan.
NS: How did Butte residents who were present at the meeting respond to this idea of needing to temper their expectations about the Superfund cleanup?
DM: Not all that well, frankly. One of the most articulate people there, Sister Mary Jo McDonald who's been in this community for many, many years. She told the assembled federal officials 'Butte has been held hostage for decades by mining companies, you need to get that corridor clean, and Butte deserves this cleanup.' And I think that resonates with a lot of people here. It resonates with me.
NS: I can hear that in your voice. Lets break down for a second how exactly this would fit into EPA and ARCO's confidential legal negotiations.
DM:Well, the negotiations are dealing with precisely these points; whether this waste will be removed. And I think McGrath made a good point when he said that this was something that the negotiators could look to as perhaps a shared vision. If [it] were adopted as a desired outcome for those negotiations, that would be a much more positive step than where we are right now.
NS: It would actually, legitimately involve the community in this process too.
DM: Absolutely. One of the key questions is the concept of environmental justice. This area runs through a very impoverished part of Butte, in parts, and there's a lot of feeling that people who live near this corridor deserve it to be clean and deserve it to be an environment where their kids can play, instead of being fenced away from.
NS: Does this plan that was put forth from the Restore Our Creek coalition have any kind of time-stamp on it? What's the next step for getting feedback?
DM: Restore Our Creek has asked for feedback from the consent decree negotiators by December 15. Now that seems very quick, and I don't know if they'll be successful in getting that feedback that quickly. Also, all tied up in this is the election, of course. We could have a very different cast of characters dealing with this situation. We have to wait and see what happens in a few days to know where we're going to be on things.
NS: Did anything else surface from that community meeting on Thursday?
DM: I think a lot of pride in what Restore Our Creek has been able to accomplish. McGrath from EPA said something like how everybody in the room had the best of motives. And the motives of Restore Our Creek are clear; they want a better environment for their kids and their grandkids than they've had. And they've done an awful lot of work to push the process along. I think there's a fair amount of pride in what they've managed.
NS: It'll be exciting to find out what happens in a few days and a few weeks, and we'll check back in with you soon.
DM: I think one interesting comparison might be Milltown Dam. Because what happened there was absolutely the result of grassroots pressure and involvement. And Butte has seen that, and I think has learned the lesson that this community effort is exactly along the same lines.
NS: I'm glad you brought that up, that's a great comparison, and adds some context to this effort in Butte.
David McCumber, thanks so much for joining us again.
DM: You're very welcome Nora, thank you.