This week — if the government shutdown doesn't get in the way — the Environmental Protection Agency will announce the next chapter for the Butte Hill. After 34 years, the cleanup has had enough chapters and plot twists to make a novel.
It's possible that an agreement has been reached between all parties negotiating in secret on the Butte Hill portion of the Superfund complex.
Such an agreement would close the book on the confidential negotiations that have been going on for more than 10 years between EPA, the state, the county, the railroads, and Atlantic Richfield Company.
Butte citizens would then know how much will get done of what's left — the tailings long ago deposited along the Parrot corridor from Texas Avenue to George Street, the contamination in and around Slag Wall Canyon, and the vegetative caps on the Butte Hill that need fixing or were never done.
In other words, after 34 years, Butte will learn its fate.
EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento is scheduled to visit Butte this week and announce whether such an agreement has been reached. The federal government shutdown may delay that visit, EPA spokesman Andrew Mutter said Saturday. He said he expects to know more by Monday.
When Benevento does arrive in Butte, details of such an agreement would probably not be divulged because it would be only an "agreement in principle." But the fog around those details would begin to lift in the foreseeable future.
Given the complexity of any agreement — and the requirement for subsequent public discussions and formal approval by all parties, including Butte-Silver Bow's Council of Commissioners — the final chapter of the cleanup would still be in the future. But the end of the novel would be within sight.
If, on the other hand, Benevento announces that an agreement has not been reached, then EPA will unilaterally order Atlantic Richfield to do another round of work, and more twists and turns would ensue.
It's unclear whether consent-decree talks would continue. But if EPA issues the order, Atlantic Richfield would have no choice but to roll up its sleeves.
Since 2011, Atlantic Richfield has been working on the Butte Hill under just such an EPA order. Despite much progress, seven years later, not all of what was ordered has been done.
EPA ordered medical monitoring in 2011, specifying testing for lead, arsenic, and mercury.
There is no medical monitoring program per se in Butte. But there are several programs in place to identify children exposed to lead and help families who might be exposed to lead.
The health department offers a program to low-income expectant or new mothers and fathers. It includes, among other things, free blood lead tests for small children who are in the program. Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer Karen Sullivan says local physicians also do blood lead testing on small children.
A 2014 study gathered nearly ten years' worth of data on blood lead and the environment. The study, conducted with the help of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, found that blood lead levels in Butte have been on the decline since the 1990s when officials first recognized a problem.
The county and EPA are also discussing a new health study. The details of what that will entail have yet to be worked out.
The Residential Metals Abatement Program, more commonly referred to as RMAP, mandates that the county will do a check on all homes built before 1982 on the Butte Hill, testing soil and attic dust in those homes. Contamination is removed from homes that have lead or arsenic above certain levels.
If a child is found to have high blood lead levels, the RMAP program works to identify the source of the lead and do something about it. That could include removing dust from an attic, removing soil from the yard, or entirely repainting the interior of a house, Eric Hassler, the county's Superfund operations and maintenance manager, said.
Atlantic Richfield Company fully funds the program. It is the one aspect of Butte's cleanup to date that is praised by even some of the most vocal Superfund critics. So far, the county has sampled around 2,700 homes in Uptown, according to Hassler.
Both Sullivan and Hassler said there hasn't been a problem with mercury or arsenic. Hassler said only one home in Walkerville had a mercury problem. That was detected years ago, and the house was torn down.
As for arsenic, Sullivan said arsenic can be found in the diet — fish, rice, and other foods — so detecting arsenic in urine can be misleading. EPA's former toxicologist and project managers echoed that in interviews with The Montana Standard last year about arsenic in Butte and Anaconda.
When Citizens Technical Environmental Committee board member David Hutchins first moved to Butte with his two sons around 2012, he asked Butte-Silver Bow County Health Department if he and his sons could be tested for arsenic.
Hutchins sought the test because the county had found elevated lead and arsenic in his attic and yard. Hutchens and his family live Uptown.
"We had only just recently moved to Butte. I thought it would be valuable to monitor that (arsenic and lead) to see if it's increasing," Hutchins said.
Hutchins, a graduate student in environmental engineering at Montana Tech, paid for arsenic tests for himself and his sons through a private physician. The tests came back OK, as did the county's testing of his sons' blood lead levels.
EPA, in a written statement to the Standard, said "the required medical monitoring began in 2011 and has continued through the present day" and directed the Standard to the RMAP program.
EPA also said, "when individuals are found to have elevated blood lead, blood mercury, or urinary arsenic, the home where the affected person or persons live is prioritized for immediate sampling and evaluation."
Hassler confirmed that the highest priority for lead abatement is if the county identifies a child with elevated blood lead levels.
But EPA didn't explain how individuals will learn if they have elevated mercury or arsenic, since there is no infrastructure in place to detect it.
Silver Bow Creek
According to Montana Department of Environmental Quality, copper and zinc are the primary contaminants landing in Silver Bow Creek. Copper and zinc are both detrimental to fish.
EPA ordered Atlantic Richfield Company in 2011 to build a basin at the bottom of Buffalo Gulch, just south of Safeway on Front Street, to capture heavy metals before the contaminants enter the creek.
It was never built.
Various county officials point to two buried devices that Atlantic Richfield put in along Buffalo Gulch, under EPA's 2011 order. Lower Buffalo Gulch begins north of the Original Headframe, travels underground down the Butte Hill, and only resurfaces south of the Front Street Safeway.
Everyone The Montana Standard spoke to for this story agrees that the buried devices work wonders at capturing sediment.
Matt Moore, the county's operations manager of Metro Sewer, said he "loves" those buried devices.
"They capture sediment and garbage, cigarette butts, tampons, bricks, that kind of stuff," Moore said. "They (the buried devices) certainly help us. They're great."
But the buried devices, which were installed to capture heavy metals, don't have as great a report card on that score, retired state project manager Joe Griffin said.
They capture 35 percent of heavy metals heading toward the creek. Catch basins capture 95 percent of heavy metals, Griffin said.
EPA confirmed that.
Atlantic Richfield, which asked for a delay in 2012 on building the Buffalo Gulch basin while it evaluated the buried devices, said the technology "performs as intended."
"The (buried) devices and catch basins are two different technologies with different purposes," Brett Clanton, Atlantic Richfield's Houston-based spokesperson, said in writing. "Both technologies … could be integrated into a sediment removal system."
EPA said, in writing, "Storm water controls are currently being evaluated for Buffalo Gulch. The (buried) devices are an important part of effectively managing storm water."
But Griffin said water monitoring indicates that where Buffalo Gulch enters the creek and where Blacktail Creek meets Silver Bow Creek — the two confluences are within about 100 yards of each other — there is "quite a bit of water quality degradation" during storms.
Whether the contamination is coming primarily from the Blacktail-Silver Bow confluence or from Buffalo Gulch no one can tell for sure. But it's likely sending at least some metals into the creek during rain and snow melt.
Jon Sesso, the county's Superfund coordinator, said the Buffalo Gulch basin "has been elusive" because of issues as to whether it should go on the north side of the railroad track or the south side of the railroad track. He said there were also property rights issues. Before all of that could get resolved, the basin "drifted to what is under consideration now," which means the confidential discussions.
DEQ said, in writing, that the copper and zinc are "on average five to 10 times greater than state water quality standards" in Silver Bow Creek during storms.
In addition to copper and zinc, other heavy metals including cadmium, lead, and silver exceed state standards during storms, though not as frequently as copper and zinc.
Sesso said Butte faces "an extraordinary challenge" because everything, from heavy metals to discarded cigarette butts, goes "to this one skinny stream called Silver Bow Creek."
Sesso said 34 different Superfund stormwater structures have been built in Butte. He is confident things such as Buffalo Gulch will be worked out by the time the final decisions are made.
But Griffin called the heavy metals getting into Silver Bow Creek at the confluence and Buffalo Gulch area "the biggest problem Silver Bow Creek has."