If the Environmental Protection Agency finds a problem on the Flat, the federal agency will address it, EPA officials said Friday.
After languishing for more than 30 years of Butte’s Superfund cleanup, with hardly a wink of attention from EPA, a section of Butte's Superfund site known as West Side Soils came to the forefront of Butte’s Superfund cleanup last fall. An internal government report criticized EPA across the nation for not assigning enough employees to Superfund sites. Because of that lack of manpower, EPA was not addressing problems quickly enough, according to the report.
The report specifically pointed to the West Side Soils Operable Unit in Butte as an area where EPA does not know if residents who live within that area are safe from heavy metal contamination from Butte's historical mining and smelting.
The Montana Standard reported for months that the Flat, a highly populated neighborhood southeast of Uptown, is a part of West Side Soils. The newspaper queried EPA in emails with direct questions about the Flat and reported repeatedly that the Flat is a part of West Side Soils. EPA never responded specifically to the Standard's questions about the Flat or asked for corrections to the stories. Three different Superfund professionals in Butte told the Standard they believed the Flat to be a part of West Side Soils.
But after a Council of Commissioners meeting last month, EPA told the Standard that the Flat is not part of West Side Soils.
The controversy this caused “surprised” the agency, EPA Region Administrator Doug Benevento said.
“We were surprised people were surprised,” he told The Montana Standard Friday morning. “Something happened here. Folks were surprised to hear this.”
Benevento said he didn’t know why EPA didn’t address the questions The Montana Standard had sent in September and October specifically asking about the Flat. Those emailed queries were sent to both the Helena EPA office as well as the Denver office.
EPA has never drawn a map of West Side Soils, retired state project manager Joe Griffin previously told the Standard.
But Benevento said during his 1 ½-hour public presentation before a packed house at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives Friday that EPA will listen to what the community knows about the Flat and, if there are problems, EPA will address them.
A few people at the meeting brought up the former Bell Smelter, which was located where the Holiday Inn Express is now on Harrison Avenue just north of the Interstate 90-15 on-ramp.
Montana Superfund Unit Manager Joe Vranka said that area had been “redeveloped.” He also said “there were no widespread sources” of contamination on the Flat and said that previous soil sampling in the Flat only revealed one spot where heavy metals were above the levels EPA considers safe.
But another issue that came up during the meeting is copper and zinc reaching Blacktail Creek. Griffin said he worries that the metals will create a stormwater problem for Butte that will lead to the county receiving fines down the road.
Restore Our Creek Coalition spokesman Northey Tretheway said the Greeley neighborhood, in the northern portion of the Flat, “has some of the highest concentrations of metals anywhere” in Butte.
Vranka said that was something EPA “can follow up on.”
Benevento told the Standard that EPA “needs to find a way to avoid surprises in the future.” One of his overall messages Friday was that he recognizes EPA needs to do a better job of communicating with Butte.
Toward that end, Benevento is planning to pay a visit to the Council of Commissioners sometime this year.