Parrot tailings blue water

Shown here in this file photo is the result of pumping groundwater from the site of the Parrot tailings. The water pumps blue. Agreement over removing the tailings is believed to be part of the agreement in principle reached on the Butte Hill cleanup last week.

Gov. Steve Bullock keeps a pair of bottle openers on a shelf behind his desk in the Capitol.

No, not to crack open a couple of beers after work, but as a symbol of the commitment he made to Butte in 2015.

The bottle openers don't look so good. The surface of the metal is dark brown and pitted.

That's because in the summer of 2015, when Bullock toured the Parrot tailings area with Butte legislators and Pat Cunneen, environmental science specialist with the state's Natural Resource Damage Program, the openers were dipped in a pail of water drawn from a well near the Civic Center.

The well water, part of the so-called Parrot Plume, is more polluted than the water in the Berkeley Pit, and the governor watched it quickly do its work on the bottle openers.

It definitely made an impression.

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Parrot Smelter panorama

Beneath the county shops and ball field on Civic Center Road where the Parrot Smelter once sat are the Parrot tailings — primary source of the contaminated Parrot Plume.

Shortly afterward, he committed the state to act unilaterally to excavate the Parrot site and remove most of the tailings. He told the parties he wanted to "get dirt moving" by the following summer.

That didn't happen for a variety of reasons, and Bullock admitted this week to some frustration with the process.

But just last week, an agreement in principle was reached between the EPA, Atlantic Richfield, the state and Butte-Silver Bow for the Butte Hill Superfund cleanup. Included in the as-yet-undisclosed agreement is believed to be some funding from Atlantic Richfield to help remove the Parrot tailings — something the company has fought for decades.

For Bullock, the agreement represents a chance to get the cleanup process restarted. And it also may alleviate a situation in which the state didn't really have enough funding to complete the Parrot job.

"I'm very pleased that an agreement in principle has been reached," Bullock said in an interview with The Montana Standard Tuesday. "I commend the new regional (EPA) director, Doug Benevento, for providing a deadline that got the parties working together."

Bullock cautioned that there are many details yet to be worked out, and he said he was looking forward to being able to release more details about the negotiations when a confidentiality agreement covering the talks, imposed years ago by a federal judge, is lifted. All parties to the talks have agreed to ask the court to suspend or modify the limits on disclosure now that an agreement has been reached.

"We've got agreements on the Parrot removal signed now with BN (Burlington Northern) and MR (Montana Resources), and I hope Wednesday night we'll have an agreement with Butte-Silver Bow," Bullock said.

"I've said we're going to get the tailings out, and we are," he added. "Maybe now by next summer we can see some dirt moving.

"It's about damn time."

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