Significant changes are underway at the Environmental Protection Agency, but how they will affect the largest Superfund complex in the nation is — at this stage — about as clear as the Berkeley Pit's metal-laden water.
While EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said in May that, under his leadership, Superfund would be restored to its "rightful place at the center of the agency's core mission," the Trump administration's proposed budget cuts slash Superfund by more than 30 percent — just like the rest of the agency.
Exactly how this will play out for Butte and Anaconda is unanswered. EPA's Denver office answered a few questions by email but declined an interview request for this story. EPA's Washington D.C. headquarters did not respond to most of the Standard's questions. But a Washington spokesperson did say "it's premature to speculate" on how the changes will affect Butte and Anaconda.
Despite a workforce reduction of up to 8 percent currently underway through a buy-out process, EPA's Denver office said via email that EPA's Helena office "will continue to work on sites." (See info box.)
But Trump has proposed slashing EPA's budget by 31 percent in 2018 to $5.6 billion, the largest proposed cut to any federal agency and, adjusted for inflation, EPA's smallest budget in 40 years, according to The Atlantic Monthly. EPA would also lose 3,800 jobs if Congress passes Trump's budget proposal. That's over and above the workforce reduction happening now.
If the budget is passed by Congress, the Superfund budget — separate from EPA's operating budget — would be cut by 30 percent, according to news reports. That would cut the $1-billion-plus program by about $330 million.
Regardless of how the budget shakes out in 2018, EPA under President Trump and Pruitt, who sued EPA as Oklahoma Attorney General 14 times, is facing a significant new direction.
Pruitt released a memo May 22 announcing a Superfund task force. The group has already begun to meet and may have a list of ideas for Pruitt as early as the end of June.
Pruitt wants the task force to reexamine how much oversight EPA needs to provide and to dream up ways to "incentivize" private investment at sites. He also wants to hear from the task force on ways EPA could implement "public-private partnerships," into the Superfund program.
The task force will suggest alternative and "non-traditional" approaches to finance cleanups. The task force will also send Pruitt ideas on how to reduce EPA's administrative and overhead costs for cleanups.
Even while the new directive suggests a top-down management approach with key decisions made at headquarters, the memo also states that the new task force will recommend ways to expand the role that state and local governments can play in the process.
Pruitt's task force is being chaired by Albert Kelly, who is a senior advisor to Pruitt.
According to E&E News, a news site for energy and environment professionals, Kelly has donated more than $200,000 to federal and state campaigns, mostly to GOP candidates, including Pruitt when he ran for Oklahoma Attorney General. According to Kelly's resume, he is a former Oklahoma banker with no experience in environmental issues or cleanup.
Pruitt's memo expresses concern over Superfund sites that "take too long to start and too long to complete." This new approach will "streamline and improve" the process.
But Joe Griffin, former state project manager for the Butte Hill, says he finds the memo "worrisome."
"What this (memo) seems to emphasize is time and money," Griffin said. "My suspicion is this looks like a back-door way of cutting back on environmental regulation."
What's at stake?
Much has already been accomplished in the 34 years since EPA declared Silver Bow Creek and Butte a Superfund site from more than a hundred years of mining and smelting waste. Old-timers recall an era when the creek "ran red" and nothing grew on the Butte Hill. Thanks to EPA's years of work and oversight, there are fish in the creek and grass on the Hill.
Lead levels in Butte's children appear to be on the decline. Arsenic levels in Anaconda's children also appear to be lower than they were decades ago.
But there is still much to be done. (See info box.)
Pruitt takes the reins
An earlier May memo declared that Pruitt will personally oversee Superfund sites with remedies costing $50 million or more.
When The Montana Standard reached out to EPA's Washington D.C. office to request comment for this story, an EPA spokesperson emailed back to say that Pruitt would not direct the Silver Bow Creek/Butte site nor Anaconda's sites because those sites "do not currently have estimated remedies of $50 million or more."
Asked for clarification, the EPA's Washington spokesperson said, "EPA does not currently have plans to select new remedies for the Silver Bow Creek/Butte or the Anaconda Superfund sites that exceed the $50 million threshold."
The 2006 document that lays out the cleanup work just for the Butte Hill alone, which is just one aspect of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte site, estimated 11 years ago that the work would cost Atlantic Richfield between $110 million and $157 million.
In a discussion with the Standard last fall, Montana Superfund Director Joe Vranka theorized that Atlantic Richfield has already spent around $250 million on Butte.
The cleanup going forward includes significant work on Slag Wall Canyon, Blacktail and Silver Bow creeks, Warm Springs Ponds, and the Parrot corridor.
Griffin pointed out an additional worry. Both Butte and Anaconda are "waste in place" remedies, meaning that there will always be some work in the years ahead, even after the sites are "complete."
The most obvious example of that is the treatment of the Berkeley Pit's water. Griffin theorizes that treatment, once it begins in 2023, could cost Atlantic Richfield and Montana Resources as much as $1 million a year.
The remedy specifies that the treatment plant will operate in perpetuity.
Similarly, polluted groundwater collected by a subdrain installed by Atlantic Richfield on the Butte Hill must be "treated in perpetuity," according to a remedy outlined in an official Record of Decision.
All of which gives the appearance, at least, of costs on the work to be done totaling more than $50 million.
The same is true of Anaconda's cleanup, which is more than 300 square miles with years of work still ahead.
An EPA spokesperson in the Denver office said in an email that even though Pruitt would not personally oversee new Butte and Anaconda remedies, there will be "close coordination" between the Helena office, the Denver office, and Pruitt's office.
Conflict on tailings continues
Restore Our Creek Coalition spokesperson Northey Tretheway said he is still confident in EPA.
The coalition has been fighting for close to two years to push EPA to order additional work in the Parrot corridor. This is work that EPA maintains does not need to be done. But the state, in a long fight with EPA, says it does.
That fight has been over the Parrot tailings, buried waste behind the Civic Center, but also over the surface-level tailings between the Civic Center and the visitors center along George Street. The state's concern is that the metals in that corridor will perpetually contaminate the creek.
EPA says it won't.
While the state plans to remove the source of the Parrot tailings, there is no plan in place to remove the surface tailings along George Street.
Tretheway said that, more than anything else, he and the coalition want to see those tailings removed.
"The tailings have to come out," Tretheway said. "That's what we're fighting to get done."
Last fall, the coalition held a public presentation over its vision of the tailings all being excavated and a park being put in its place. The vision calls for the park to be more than a mile long and include, among a host of amenities, a meandering creek. EPA's region 8 director Shaun McGrath flew in from Denver to attend the presentation.
Long-time Superfund watchdog Fritz Daily estimated at the meeting that the park could cost as much as $65 million.
Tretheway said this week his group has received assurances that EPA is still listening to their concerns.
But McGrath is no longer with EPA. He left his post before Trump took office.