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Doug Benevento

EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento talks about the ongoing Superfund issues in Butte and the surrounding area during a Friday interview with The Montana Standard. Benevento was "instrumental" in making an agreement — stalemated for 12 years — happen on the Butte Hill cleanup within three months of taking the job.

EPA Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento has regrets.

Despite his newness to the job, Benevento, at times, appears to have a personal feeling for Butte's cleanup and its long-stalemated negotiations. In the short time he has been at his job — he started in mid-October — he has impressed many of EPA's most ferocious critics in the Mining City.

And that is despite the fact that Benevento was appointed by President Donald Trump and works under the aegis of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Both Trump and Pruitt have received considerable and frequent criticism for stripping down the agency to the bare minimum of staff and resources.

But within a matter of three months, Benevento got all parties and agencies to give the nod late Thursday to the agreement that is expected to lead to the end of the Butte Hill cleanup — a cleanup that has been going on for 35 years.

It's what no one else in his position has been able to accomplish in the 12 years of negotiations over what should be in the agreement.

While details of the agreement are not yet known — and a decree isn't expected to be signed until the end of 2018 — without it, Butte's cleanup seemed a distant beam that no one knew for sure if the town could ever touch.

Benevento, who made his third trip within his three-month tenure to Montana this past week, spent 12 straight hours at the negotiating table Thursday. The meeting ran into the late evening, and Benevento had to put off dinner plans that had been made for 6 p.m.

He didn't leave the room until an agreement in principle was reached around 8:45 p.m.

Benevento, who led Colorado's Department of Public Health and the Environment prior to 2010, has referred often to Leadville, Colorado. He has repeatedly mentioned how similar Butte is to the old mining town two hours west of Denver.

Benevento called his experience of working on Leadville's problems for the state of Colorado "one of the regrets of my professional career."

"It always stayed with me," Benevento told The Montana Standard Friday morning in the Reading Room at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. Leadville has most of its Superfund sections delisted by now, but that wasn't the case 10 years ago.

Gold, silver, lead, and zinc were mined in Leadville, beginning around the same time as Butte's mining era began. EPA put Leadville, a tiny town of about 2,600, on the National Priorities List in the 1980s, the same time as Butte.

Leadville also has "in perpetuity" water pollution issues, had a damaged small river on the edge of town, and continues to face lead and arsenic contamination in its attics. Leadville has its own version of a Residential Metals Abatement Program — which in Butte is often referred to as RMAP.

And, also like Butte, Leadville fought with EPA over a number of issues. Benevento was, at one time, leading that fight for the state of Colorado.

"I remember the frustration. We couldn't seem to make progress when I thought we could have," he told the Standard.

The lessons he drew from his "Leadville days" have influenced his decision-making now that he heads EPA's Region 8.

With Leadville in mind, Benevento came into his top Denver post setting deadlines.

"It's about moving forward and not trapping yourself in one alternative," he said.

With that in mind, he announced in early November — just a few weeks into his job in the top position for EPA's Region 8 — that the Mining City would either reach an agreement by early January or EPA would unilaterally order Atlantic Richfield Company to finish the cleanup.

"Something was going to happen," he said.

Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer called Benevento "very instrumental" in making the agreement happen.

"Doug kept things on track with his deadline. Without him, we'd probably still be talking a few more years," Palmer said.

But the person who might be able to speak to how much credit Benevento really deserves is the person at EPA who has taken the most heat in recent years for the glacial pace of Butte's cleanup: EPA Project Manager Nikia Greene.

Benevento gave a 1½-hour presentation about the agreement and the way forward at the Archives Friday afternoon. Even while serious issues were discussed, there was laughter and light-heartedness. Greene has frequently faced a very different tone at meetings held over Butte's cleanup.

"This is a big weight off my shoulders," Greene told the Standard after the meeting about the agreement reached in principle. "Doug deserves a massive amount of credit."

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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