More government representatives than local citizens were present at Ramsay School on Tuesday night for the first public meeting concerning the planned cleanup of phosphorus waste at the Solvay plant just west of Butte.
Five Ramsay residents attended the meeting hosted by EPA environmental engineer Chris Cosentini and Solvay plant manager Dan Bersanti. They were joined by Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Matt Vincent, Eric Hassler from the county's Residential Metals Abatement Program, Eddie Zimpel of Sen. Jon Tester's office, county reclamation manager Tom Malloy, and other representatives from EPA and Solvay.
The meeting concerned EPA's Sept. 12 decision to OK Solvay's proposed plan to clean up 500,000 gallons of highly flammable phosphorus sludge from a clarifier tank left on site when the plant closed.
Solvay plans to build a machine referred to as the "mud-still" to harvest usable phosphorus for resale from the sludge over 25 years, and eventually construct an earthen cap over whatever cannot be removed.
A 45-day public comment period began the day EPA published its decision, and will end on Oct. 27. Tuesday night's meeting was an opportunity for citizens to ask Solvay and the EPA questions about the cleanup process.
Questions from Ramsay citizens were few and covered the basics, such as how long before the mud-still is operational, to which Bersanti answered three years.
One community member asked about the risk of fire during the harvesting of the tank, as phosphorus ignites upon contact with the atmosphere. Bersanti said the phosphorus coming out of the tank will be wet from the clarifier's protective water cap, and so won't immediately ignite. He said there will be smoke however, but that it won't be exceptionally hazardous and will not spread beyond the work site.
Bersanti also addressed how the mud-still process would affect experimental rocket testing done by Silicon Valley-based Space Propulsion Group, which has several rocket motor test sites in the vicinity of the clarifier tank.
Bersanti said Solvay is in good communication with SPG, and that rocket testing is expected to wrap up in the next couple of years before Solvay has even gotten the mud-still up and running. He said whether SPG would have to resettle their operations on another part of the site depends on how quickly Solvay gets the mud-still operational, as the details of the timeline are best-guess projections only.
One Ramsay resident asked whether the clarifier tank is at risk from earthquakes. Solvay environmental engineer Cam Balentine said the tank weathered a 1985 quake just fine, and has been reinforced since EPA and state environmental investigators found the tank cracked and leaking in the 2000 raid that sparked the clarifier tank's cleanup. Balentine said given a big enough earthquake the tank could rupture, but that such an event was unlikely. If the tank does lose water, Balentine said the EPA would require Solvay to dump dirt and slag on the clarifier to smother any fires in the short term.
Cosentini said EPA and MDEQ stand by their decision not to allow Solvay to use the mud-still to harvest phosphorus from waste shipped in from off-site until after the clarifier has been cleaned as much as possible and capped. She said the experimental nature of the mud-still means no one even knows if enough money could be made harvesting phosphorus from off-site waste, and that the $25 million cleanup certainly isn't profitable.
Cosentini told those at the meeting that at the end of the 25-plus years there will be some phosphous remaining in the clarifier stuck to the bottom and walls. This is an amount EPA feels comfortable capping.
"The more we get out the better," Cosentini said.
Julie Rees has lived in Ramsay since 2003, and said after the meeting she still didn't know all that much about the phosphorus plant.
"I don't know what I don't know," she said.