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On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency, Atlantic Richfield, the state of Montana and Butte-Silver Bow set in motion a request to District Judge Sam Haddon to suspend at least part of the gag order that has kept some 35 years of Superfund talks secret from the people of this county, who have to live with the consequences.

First of all, it’s certainly about time for some openness.

Along with the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition, The Montana Standard went to Haddon’s court in 2016, suing to remove the confidentiality agreement so the public could be truly included in the vital negotiations on the size and shape of the Butte cleanup. The judge brushed that attempt aside, in effect saying the merits of our lawsuit didn’t matter because it was brought too late in the process.

We took exception then to his logic and we take exception now.

If these negotiations had taken place in public, we believe, the process would have been years shorter and the result much better for Butte.

The limited request now is particularly ironic. If granted by the judge, it would allow the parties to tell the public what has already been agreed to.

EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento, a prime reason why an agreement in principle on the Butte Hill cleanup exists, is in favor of removing the confidentiality order. While the current “ask” is very limited in nature, we believe Benevento would favor a much broader opening to operate with transparency. Even Senior EPA Adviser Albert “Kell” Kelly, when he visited earlier this month, said he’d never encountered such a gag order before – this after repeatedly being told locally, over the years, that such secrecy was EPA’s standard operating procedure.

It’s high time for some straight — and open — discussion about Butte’s future. While we welcome the limited curtain-raising proposed in Friday’s teleconference with Haddon, we hope it is followed by a full, detailed disclosure of the agreement – in time for people to raise any issues with it that need to be raised.

Something tells us there will be some things in there to chew on.

After all, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. “Public comment” should be food for thought, not an afterthought, in the ultimate decision-making process.

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