It's been almost three years since the Restore Our Creek Coalition (ROCC) began working with the Butte community to ask the people of Butte what they would imagine the upper Silver Bow Creek Corridor in the heart of Butte to look like as a result of Superfund reclamation and restoration work. That effort led to the publication of a document incorporating peoples’ ideas and hopes that envision a public space called the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Park.
It's been about one month since Doug Benevento, EPA's Region 8 Administrator, met with the public to announce an “agreement in principle” among the negotiating parties that will lead to a final Consent Decree settlement for BPSOU — the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit. Benevento started his presentation by holding up a copy of the Headwaters Park document, explicitly assuring the community that the agreement in principle was built around the expectations Butte's people expressed in the Headwaters Park proposal.
How refreshing and hopeful! When was the last time any of us attended a meeting where the most powerful Superfund entities — the EPA, Montana's DEQ, Butte-Silver Bow government, the Atlantic Richfield Corporation — acknowledged that their settlement will follow the wishes of the people most affected by their decisions?
Butte folks made this possible. Your voices shaped the vision document that provided the agencies and others a sense of what all their Superfund-mandated work should lead to. Your attendance at many meetings and at last fall’s rally urging the agencies to do right by Butte and get the corridor cleaned up and the creek restored caught their attention last fall, and warned them that Butte's anger over years of inaction could boil over at any time.
Your signatures (more than 3,500 of them) on ROCC’s petition calling for removal of all the tailings and restoration of Silver Bow Creek were presented to the parties in January 2018 just before their final negotiation session. Those signatures—from 10% of Butte's residents in little over a month — removed any sense among decision makers that Butte people don't care about the future of our community. Your actions show that Butte does care, and that we expect the first mile of Silver Bow Creek to be cleaned and restored to standards at least as rigorous as those used outside and west of our community all the way to Warm Springs ponds.
So Butte, take a victory lap. You've earned it.
Administrator Benevento's actions confirm that our collective efforts have had an effect, and that things are moving forward toward a resolution of the complex cleanup issues tied to the BPSOU site. At that meeting, he also confirmed that all the parties want to open up the decision-making process as much as possible — a process that for the past twelve years has been subject to a non-disclosure order (the “gag order”) originally issued by Judge Haddon.
Because this first step is only an “agreement in principle” among the responsible parties, it lacks details, which is where, as the cliché has it, the devil resides. The process is far from done, but finally it's moving forward, toward a goal the community has said it wants—a restored Silver Bow Creek. As details emerge, ROCC and all of its member groups, including Project Green, Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice, Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, Silver Bow Creek Coalition, and others will aggressively work to ensure that the community's interests, needs, and concerns remain at the forefront of the planning, design, and development of remedial actions and restoration commitments. So, after our victory lap, all of us need to remain vigilant during the coming months.
Leadership from Doug Benevento has enabled the negotiating parties to move beyond the confusing minutiae of Superfund enforcement procedures, rules, and guidelines, to see the big picture, acknowledging that EPA's job is to fix the problem in a way that protects the health of the human and natural environment, and that leaves the Silver Bow Creek corridor restored as closely as possible to its original, natural condition.
Originally, this corridor had a creek meandering through it, a creek so clean the Salish came from far away to harvest bull trout from its waters. That’s what a restored creek corridor should be like. Thank all of you for giving Benevento a vision of what the corridor’s undamaged condition should be, and to begin the process of reconciling Butte's past environmental damage with our future hopes, plans, and dreams.