Confluence

Silver Bow Creek, left, enters Blacktail Creek at the confluence above George Street in this photo taken this week. This is one of the areas that EPA, the state, the county, and Atlantic Richfield Company have been fighting over during 12 years of confidential negotiations. The fight now appears to be over. EPA has reached an agreement over the Butte Hill cleanup.

Despite confidential talks going late into the evening Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency did not announce a final decision on the Butte Hill Superfund cleanup by press time.

The meeting in Butte broke up at about 8:45 p.m. Thursday. It’s not clear if EPA is waiting to announce the decision Friday morning or if more talks will ensue sometime after dawn.

EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento traveled from his Denver office to Butte this week. Benevento told The Montana Standard last month that EPA would reach an agreement by the end of January or order Atlantic Richfield Company, the primary responsible party, to finish the work.

EPA put Butte on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's “emphasis list” last month. That means Pruitt is giving attention to what happens with Butte's Superfund decisions. It is also intended to fast track the cleanup.

EPA has been locked in confidential negotiations with all the agencies and responsible parties involved in the Butte Hill cleanup for 12 years. EPA declared the area a Superfund site in 1983.

Benevento is holding a public meeting from 12 to 2 p.m. Friday at the Butte Archives, 17 W. Quartz St. He is expected to talk about the Butte Hill cleanup at that meeting.

While a considerable amount of work to clean the Butte Hill has been done over the last 35 years, much is still left. The issue at the heart of most critics of EPA is the Parrot tailings, buried mining and smelting waste behind the Butte Civic Center.

Gov. Steve Bullock announced more than two years ago the state would take the lead and remove the hazardous waste because EPA has never agreed with the state’s findings that removal is necessary. But the state has continued to stall out on a start date.

Harley Harris, Natural Resource Damage Council director, said at a public meeting last fall the NRD would get to work on excavation as soon as construction season starts in 2018. Due to an inability to reach agreements with all parties involved – the county, Montana Resources, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway – NRD is now pushing its start date to mid-summer.

Harris told the Standard this week that the agency is close to getting the signatures it needs.

But the state also lacks about $14 million to get the work done. NRD wants Atlantic Richfield to pay for a portion of the work. The state has about $18.5 million to spend on the project.

Atlantic Richfield’s Houston-based spokesperson Brett Clanton declined to comment.

Other issues remain. Restore Our Creek Coalition, a group of community members, wants to see all the tailings removed that were long ago deposited from Texas Avenue to George Street by the Parrot Smelter.

They also hope to see a meandering creek running from Texas Avenue to George Street.

A berm on the south side of Blacktail Creek, behind the Butte Civic Center, is loaded with heavy metals and is a source of contamination to the creek, according to the state.

Butte’s storm water is another concern, and one that some critics say could leave Butte-Silver Bow County holding the bag.

Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer said during Wednesday evening’s commission meeting that there were possible upsides and downsides to the county being potentially liable and responsible for part of the cleanup costs.

On the plus side, the county has a seat at the negotiating table, he said. But if the county is ordered to pay for the “stormwater part of the problem,” it could be a “hefty bill.”

Some critics say a catch basin at the bottom of Buffalo Gulch would help with Butte’s storm water issue. EPA ordered Atlantic Richfield to install that catch basin in 2011, but the work was never done.

The Slag Wall Canyon area, near South Montana Street, also appears to be a source for metals getting into the creek, according to state findings.

Other critics point to vegetative caps on the Butte Hill that were never done or need to be redone.

With so much work hanging in the balance, Butte waits to see what EPA has to announce Friday.

Reporter Mike Smith contributed to this story.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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