One former Department of Environmental Quality official who attended the Restore Our Creek Coalition rally at the Covellite Theatre Tuesday evening called the presentation — full of passion, anger and frustration over the unfinished Silver Bow Creek cleanup — “timely.”
Retired state project manager Joe Griffin pointed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new regional administrator Doug Benevento’s visit to Butte two weeks ago. Benevento said on that trip during meetings with community leaders that he wants to see a legal agreement on the Butte Hill cleanup, called a consent decree, reached by early next year.
The rally, co-sponsored by Restore Our Creek Coalition and The Montana Standard, was designed to continue momentum on the issue of removing mining and smelting waste along the Parrot corridor — from the Butte Civic Center to the Visitor’s Center on George Street — and talk about economic development in Butte.
Many speakers said that Butte struggles economically due to the 34-year cleanup. EPA declared Silver Bow Creek/Butte area a Superfund site in 1983.
If Benevento lives up to his word — that a consent decree will be reached by early next year — many say that will help Butte begin to heal.
The consent decree will lay out the cleanup and the costs to the primary responsible party, Atlantic Richfield Company. It would also mean that Atlantic Richfield would have to finish the job. The state, and many in the community, argue that there is still much to be done.
EPA project manager Nikia Greene was the only representative for EPA to attend the rally. Although Benevento arrived back in Montana Tuesday, neither he nor Montana Superfund Director Joe Vranka attended.
But Greene said movement has begun on the consent decree talks.
“We’re trying to get ‘er done,” Greene told The Montana Standard after the rally.
Greene was echoing the many presenters who said, repeatedly, “get ‘er done.”
But the general theme that thread its way through all of the ten speakers was economic development. Montana Tech Vice Chancellor Joe McClaffety said Tech faces challenges in recruitment because of Butte’s reputation as a “dirty town.”
He said about 4,500 Montana school children go to college and Tech competes with other colleges around the state for that group of students.
“They do know what the reputation is here. We can make this change right now,” McClafferty said.
Kevin Dennehy, vice president of business development at St. James Healthcare, also spoke about the difficulty of attracting physicians, nurses and medical technicians to the community because of Superfund.
“The first thing they do is Google Butte,” he said, adding that they “find negative things.”
Dennehy also expressed concern about the overall health of the community, stating that in the last few community health assessments, Butte-Silver Bow County ranked below both the national and the state averages in almost every category.
“We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got to show people we’re serious about the health of our community.”
One speaker, 14-year-old Butte High School student Taryn Stratton, drank a glass of blue Kool-Aid to provide a visual aid of the copper-laden water moving below ground behind the Butte Civic Center. That groundwater is more toxic than the Berkeley Pit water, state scientists say. The state has long argued that the source of that contamination, mining and smelting waste from the historic Parrot Smelter, needs to be removed. EPA does not agree that the removal is necessary, which leaves it up to the state to clean it up.
Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock decided nearly two years ago that the state would go forward with that removal and not wait any longer for EPA to reach consensus with the state’s position. But the state does not currently have enough money in the bank for the full removal project — estimated at about $31 million.
The state has about $18 million set aside for the project, which includes relocating the county’s vehicle and maintenance shops to a site off Beef Trail Road.
Where the rest of the money will come from is still unknown.
Natural Resource Program Director Harley Harris, who is in charge of the Parrot tailings cleanup, said he hopes the rally will “help our progress” and will “keep the momentum going.”
Mike Schulte, a resident who lives on the Flat, said in the 67 years he’s lived in Butte, he’s seen the population dwindle. When he was a child in the 1950s and 1960s, the town was thriving. He attended the rally because he's concerned about the cleanup.
Maggie Davis, 27, who works for her father, Ron Davis, the president and general manager of three Butte radio stations, said she wished more people aged 25 to 35 had attended the rally.
“This is a fight we’re going to inherit,” she said.
Her father, Ron Davis, emphasized that concept as well when he warned EPA should “get ready for a street fight,” during his presentation.
Of the 10 speakers, which included Montana Standard editor David McCumber, were community leaders such as Chamber of Commerce executive director Stephanie Sorini, who have not spoken at a public meeting about Superfund issues in recent memory.
B-SB chief executive Dave Palmer gave a quick update on the relocation of the county shops, saying, "we continue to work with the state to remove the county shops to get rolling on the Parrot project."
Palmer also said that any consent decree will have to be approved by the B-SB Council of Commissioners and that there will be a "robust" public process.
The only representative to attend the rally from DEQ, state project manager Darryl Reed, said he would be taking the messages he heard at Tuesday evening’s rally back to leaders.
Reed said he could not comment on where DEQ stands on NRD’s removal of the Parrot tailings. Both are state agencies.
Benevento plans to visit with community leaders in Anaconda Wednesday. He will also get a tour of Anaconda's Superfund site. When he visited Montana two weeks ago, only 13 days into his job, he did not have the chance to visit Anaconda.
Benevento was appointed by President Donald Trump in early October. He replaces Shaun McGrath, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama.
About 100 people attended the rally. Greene told The Standard after the rally that EPA "wants to see the community's vision realized."