The Environmental Protection Agency is giving Butte and Anaconda the attention many local critics of the 34-year cleanup say the nation's largest Superfund complex deserves.
EPA announced Friday that both the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund and Anaconda's Superfund sites made EPA administrator Scott Pruitt's "emphasis list." Pruitt also intends to visit Butte in 2018, according to EPA's website.
As part of EPA's plan for Butte, EPA has now set a date — the end of January 2018 — by which all parties have to agree to the legal agreement that will finalize the Butte Hill cleanup, which has languished for years.
Formerly referred to as Pruitt's "Top Ten" list, the number has now grown to 21 sites across the nation that will get Pruitt's direct attention. The list will be dynamic, so the number of sites on it will change over time.
The list is in direct response to a host of recommendations made by the Superfund Task Force that Pruitt set up this past summer. Pruitt charged the Task Force, chaired by former Oklahoma banker Albert Kelly, to come up with recommendations about how to improve EPA's response to Superfund and speed up the process.
"By elevating these sites we are sending a message that EPA is, in fact, restoring its Superfund program to its rightful place at the center of the agency's mission," Pruitt said through a release. "Getting toxic land sites cleaned up and revitalized is of the utmost importance to the communities across the country that are affected by these sites."
What this means in the short term is that Pruitt will now receive regular updates on the cleanup for both towns.
EPA Region 8 administrator Doug Benevento says that if a legal agreement on the Butte Hill cannot be reached by the end of January to complete the Superfund work yet to be done in Uptown and the Silver Bow Creek corridor from Texas Avenue through Slag Wall Canyon, then EPA will issue an order forcing Atlantic Richfield Company, the primary responsible party, to finish the work without an agreement in place.
Benevento said the confidential talks on the agreement, or consent decree, have been productive of late and that there is "a lot of good will."
Around a century of historic copper mining and smelting impacted Butte.
The Berkeley Pit, the best-known and most notorious part of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site, will now be under Pruitt's eye. EPA is currently reviewing the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant to prepare it to be ready to pump and treat the pit's metal-laden water in perpetuity starting in 2023. Pruitt will receive updates on the plant as that review continues.
Benevento said that having the plant operating sooner than 2023 — which is when the pit's water is expected to reach the critical water level — would be ideal.
"This is something we will be talking about," Benevento told The Montana Standard in a telephone interview Friday.
EPA will also begin to investigate the section known as West Side Soils, which includes the Flat and an unmapped area west of Uptown, next summer. EPA has done very little work on West Side Soils in the 34 years Butte and Silver Bow Creek have been a Superfund site. A federal report released in September said that due to the lack of a full investigation on West Side Soils, EPA does not know whether "human exposure is under control."
EPA intends to implement cleanup options on West Side Soils "as soon as feasible," according to the news release.
But retired Superfund state project manager Joe Griffin previously told The Montana Standard that the process could take years.
The federal report cited a lack of appropriate staffing at Superfund sites — including Butte's — across the nation as the reason why many sites have lingered for years. Benevento said that EPA will now be making sure "regional assets are allocated appropriately to best protect human health and the environment."
That could mean EPA will bring more project managers to the Butte site, Benevento said. Currently, Butte Hill project manager Nikia Greene oversees almost all of the sprawling, 30-mile-long site, which consists of seven separate sections.
Butte-Silver Bow County chief executive Dave Palmer called the news of Butte's listing "a step in the right direction."
Anaconda-Deer Lodge County chief executive Bill Everett said almost exactly the same thing about Anaconda's listing.
"It's a huge step in the right direction, and after 34 years of being a Superfund site, we are finally getting the attention we deserve," Everett said.
Anaconda's environmental damage was caused by close to a century of smelting Butte's copper.
EPA intends that 1,000 homes in Anaconda will be addressed for arsenic and lead over the next three years. EPA is also committed to creating a health study for Anaconda residents to more fully understand potential health impacts of Superfund on the community. At a meeting last month with Benevento, Everett raised concerns about cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — or COPD — and neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis.
Benevento said that for Anaconda, Pruitt's attention will mean EPA will have all three of the town's schools — Anaconda High School, Fred Moodry Middle School, and Lincoln Elementary — tested for lead and arsenic in the air ducts and attics of the schools. This was another request Everett made during a visit Benevento paid to Anaconda last month. Benevento said he hopes to see that happen before the end of the year.
Lincoln Elementary is located in east Anaconda, the neighborhood closest to the former smelter. Lead exposure lowers IQ and causes developmental delays. EPA tested the soil at the schools for arsenic years ago but never tested for lead either inside or outside the school.
Benevento said being on Pruitt's list will mean that Anaconda can expect to get a program similar to Butte's Residential Metals Abatement Program, often referred to by its acronym RMAP. Butte's program allows Uptown homeowners to get their attics and yards tested for both arsenic and lead with some restrictions.
But Benevento said Anaconda's proposed version of RMAP will not include lead paint. He said EPA will be looking for other federal grant programs that Anaconda can apply to for help with that issue.
Anaconda Local Development Corporation executive director Jim Davidson said delisting Anaconda as a Superfund site "would be the best outcome" of being on Pruitt's emphasis list.
Department of Environmental Quality director Tom Livers said Friday that the "people of Butte and Anaconda have waited long enough."
Gov. Steve Bullock; Senators Steve Daines, R-Montana, and Jon Tester, D-Montana; and Congressman Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, reacted to the announcement by emphasizing their commitment to seeing Butte and Anaconda cleaned up. Benevento said Butte and Anaconda's placement on Pruitt's emphasis list is due to "the tireless and tenacious advocacy" that came from Montana's elected officials. Daines sent a letter earlier this week urging Pruitt to include Butte on the list.
"This isn't a partisan thing," Benevento said. "Everybody is pulling for these communities to receive the cleanup they deserve."
But long-time Superfund watchdog Fritz Daily said he is still skeptical.
"If it's a band-aid cleanup like Butte's had in the past, then I'm not for it," Daily said.
Restore Our Creek Coalition spokesperson Northey Tretheway called it "really good news."
BSB Superfund coordinator Jon Sesso hopes this listing will mean a concrete decision on the Butte Hill coming soon, as EPA has now promised.
"I think it's great to have both the Butte and Anaconda sites on the list. It shows that we have gotten the attention at the highest levels of the agency. It's a testament to the amount of citizen input that has come through over the course of the last year."