Final construction for the Montana Pole and Treating Plant Superfund site was approved at the end of March. In addition to a general rundown on other Superfund projects in Butte, experts at the EPA’s Superfund community meeting on Monday provided the public Pole Plant details and a rough glimpse of the schedule for construction to come.
Some living in neighborhoods near the site remain concerned about the next phase of the project.
The former wood-treating plant, north of Greenwood Avenue, south of Silver Bow Creek and bisected by Interstate 15-90, operated from 1946 to 1984. Chemical contaminants were first discovered entering the Silver Bow Creek drainage in 1983, sparking emergency cleanup action by the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal government sued the responsible parties for the cleanup.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is the lead agency on the project.
The Explanation of Significant Differences for an amendment to the 1993 Record of Decision on the project was approved in March, allowing work on the south side of the interstate to move soil contaminated with pentachlorophenol and dioxin, two cancer-causing contaminants, into a specialized 9-acre lined repository on the site, and make the other 27 acres available for commercial and recreational use.
David Bowers, project lead for the DEQ, said the final design is being completed and he’s hopeful bids will go out sometime in June for construction.
Just when construction will start isn’t only a matter of finding qualified contractors, he said, but also dependent on when they can get to the work.
“The construction is very busy in and around Butte and downstream for environmental contractors. And so the story, the timeline, is going to unfold one piece at a time,” Bowers said.
Once work begins, excavation should be a three- or four-month job, occurring over one or two construction seasons, according to Bowers.
Butte-Silver Bow has rights to first refusal on the property. Eric Hassler, director of the county’s reclamation department, said the county will follow progress closely and work with the DEQ, but won’t commit to taking the land until they see how things play out.
“Our plan is to sit back, see remedy implemented and then make decisions from there," Hassler said.
If and when the time comes, Hassler said he envisions 21 acres would be divided into three parcels for development, and the remaining six acres on the eastern end would be left as an open space buffer in consideration for the area’s neighborhoods.
The current storm water management system will have to be replaced during construction, with new channels and catch basins built.
Groundwater from the site has been treated since initial cleanup began. Since 2001, Bowers said 97% of over 1,000 samples of the effluent out of the treatment plant has met the EPA’s drinking water standard for pentachlorophenol, and all samples have met the standard for dioxin.
The bulk of the work remaining involves moving the contaminated soil to the new repository. The majority of the contaminated soil is the 200,000 cubic yards sitting atop a liner at the southeast end of the site.
Soil can only be left outside the new repository if it meets new, much lower levels set by the ESD: commercial industrial standards for dioxin, and groundwater leaching standards for pentachlorophenol.
Montana Tech professor Dr. John Ray asked Bowers if the DEQ had the funds to get the job done — especially considering the long-term cost of treating groundwater.
Bowers reassured him the EPA and DEQ estimate they have sufficient funds to complete the project.
"If the cleanup is not complete, we're going to have to find the funding. Again, do I have a crystal ball? No. Do I have very smart people working for me and providing possible approaches that could expedite the cleanup of the groundwater and therefore save years and money off the remedy? I believe I do,” Bowers said.
The Montana Standard requested additional details on the mentioned groundwater treatment approaches.
“This may include reinjection of treated groundwater and the addition of oxygen and nutrients to promote the biodegradation of contaminants,” said Moira Davin, public information specialist for the DEQ.
She added that those in-place treatment technologies will be looked into once the upcoming construction phase is complete and could lead to an “unquantifiable but potentially significant reduction” in cost.
The settlement to pay for the entire project was $35 million, of which $29 million remained as of December 2020.
Combined operations and maintenance cost of the property and water treatment plant ranges from $400,000 to around $1 million annually.
It’s estimated that groundwater will need to be treated for 50 years, but that timeframe could be lowered with possible alternative methods, Davin said.
If the funding runs out, the county won’t foot the bill for the long-term operations and maintenance, Davin said.
“You can't stop a cleanup just because you run out of money. But at the same time, your responsibility is to get it cleaned up for the money that you have,” Bowers said.
Some of the groundwater contamination comes from inaccessible sources buried under the interstate, treatment for which is still being evaluated for the long-term, Davin said.
Bioremediation of the soils on the south side of the highway has been attempted. Though successful for pentachlorophenol, it didn’t get the dioxin down to safe levels, and the contaminants remained mixed in the soils. Davin said current science does not support bioremediation as an effective method of treating dioxin-contaminated soils to a protective level.
Bowers said transport of the contaminated soil is not a good alternative option either — it’s prohibited to be transported off-site unless it’s to a licensed facility, the closest such facilities located in southern Utah and Nebraska.
Hauling over 200,000 cubic yards of soil that distance would be impractical and dangerous, he said.
“It would be at the very least about 9,000 truckloads, which going on that long of a haul and risking an accident on the highway and so forth is something that would have to be weighed as well, not to mention how expensive it would be,” Bowers said.
The Williamsburg neighborhood sits against the site on the west, the Boulevard neighborhood to the east. Bowers said the DEQ has made a commitment at neighborhood meetings to reduce odor, noise, traffic and dust during construction, and will continue to have meetings throughout the process.
Ed Fisher, fire chief for the Boulevard Volunteer Fire Department, has represented his neighborhood unofficially at the meetings so far, and has long waited for the final remedy to take place after false starts.
More specific work plans were laid out at the DEQ’s virtual neighborhood meeting in April, and Fisher said having the district’s commissioner, Eric Mankins, and Chief Executive J.P. Gallagher in attendance gave him more confidence the project will go ahead.
“I’m optimistic, I guess. But until they take the first shovelful out, we don't really know,” he said.
Fisher said the DEQ has made a strong effort to update the community, all the more difficult due to pandemic restrictions.
Long-time residents of the Williamsburg neighborhood Monica and Leonard Hoar said they had major concerns with the proposed plan — specifically that moving the soil and removing the liner where the bulk of the treated soil now sits would redistribute the chemicals in the air.
Their home lies directly to the west of the pole plant site. They said dust was a major issue in the past when soil was moved on site.
“The last time they did that they didn't keep the dust down. It was horrible, and we've got young kids out here — they're going to be breathing this in all summer long,” Monica said.
At the EPA meeting, Bowers said pentachlorophenol is volatile and can actually evaporate into and become part of the air. The DEQ and its contractor will therefore conduct real-time monitoring of the air for the chemical during construction, he said.
Dioxin will be monitored by suppressing dust, he said, because that is where dioxin is found.
“On any construction, one of the main culprits that needs to be controlled, and especially when you're dealing with contamination, is dust. And that is controlled by best management practices for construction, which is generally water sprayed on the site to keep the dust down,” he said.
Monica was also concerned about the cutting and removal of the liner under the treated soils.
“I don't see how that's even going to be possible to cut them and move them without the dust, or contamination to the other soil. I mean, I'm a plastic engineer, and I know that rubber is obviously absorbing part of that ... when they start moving that, it's just going to be all over," she said.
Bowers addressed that part of the process in his presentation on Monday.
“The liner needs to be high-pressure washed and cleaned. It will then be cut and taken for disposal,” Bowers said.
Following the removal, Bowers said the soil underneath will be tested to make sure it meets contaminant levels.
Leonard said he also expects serious odors.
“You hold your breath when you drive up past it, because it'll gag you. It's rancid. They've done it. They've unloaded it a couple of times. So it isn't like we haven't experienced that. It's bad," he said.
The DEQ will attempt to reduce the impact of odors, Bowers said.
“They're going to be evident during construction time. That's unavoidable. But there are best management practices that can be done before construction shuts down in the evenings, such as applying a layer of soil over the exposed bottom of the removal near the liner … and blanket the odors so to speak, so that it's not running out there through the entire evening,” Bowers said.
Leonard said his mistrust of the federal agencies in charge comes from watching failed attempts on the site in the past, and his belief that toxic chemicals were spread to the neighborhoods in past attempts at remedy.
Although Leonard and Monica did not attend the DEQ’s most recent virtual neighborhood meeting, they have stayed tuned and attended the DEQ’s neighborhood meetings for the project in the past.
Noise is also unavoidable, Bowers said, but the project will set construction hours, likely 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., to reduce disturbance.
In response to a question at the EPA meeting, Bowers said the DEQ will rely on interagency contact and document sharing to make sure cross-contamination from other nearby remedy sites such as the Butte Reduction Works isn’t an issue.
For those who wish to follow the progress, the DEQ plans to launch a gridded interactive map on its website which will show exactly where soil removal’s being done on the site in real-time, complete with the soil contaminant levels.
That “dashboard” will be accompanied by a few others — one for groundwater monitoring data, one to follow the progress of the contamination plume, and one that will allow the public to see up-to-date contaminant levels coming out of the water treatment plant.
Mine waste repository
In other Superfund news, up to 662,000 cubic yards of contaminated material will need to be removed from the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit corridor projects along Blacktail and Silver Bow creeks, according to Atlantic Richfield liability manager Josh Bryson.
The destination for that waste has long been a subject of public interest. It was once proposed that it would be deposited near the Timber Butte area, but that idea was tabled in March 2020 after public outcry from residents.
Now a Repository Siting Committee is being formed to begin a location study starting in June, Bryson said.
Stakeholders from the EPA, DEQ, Butte-Silver Bow and Atlantic Richfield will be on the committee with additional volunteer representatives from the public to be selected by Gallagher.
Bryson said he’s hopeful the decision will be made by the end of the year.
Nikia Greene, EPA remedial project manager for Butte, asked community members attending the EPA meeting on Monday whether they were experiencing meeting fatigue and if an alternative to monthly meetings — quarterly meetings for example — should be considered.
While they acknowledged that meeting fatigue is a real phenomenon, community members responded that the regular meetings were critical to including the community.
“The only way you're going to have community involvement is if the community has an opportunity to be on board with your meetings. And each of us can make a choice whether we want to be on board with it ... the bottom line is, this is Butte's future. And if we don't have the opportunity to hear what's really going on, then there's no transparency,” said Sister Mary Jo McDonald.
Community members suggested that the public could submit topics of discussion in advance of meetings so that the EPA and others could plan to address them.
Dana Barnicoat, EPA outreach coordinator for Butte and Anaconda, said he appreciated the feedback and that one way to improve access to critical information communicated at the meetings would be to record the meetings and post them online.
Internal regulatory and technological obstacles have so far prevented the EPA from posting recordings of the meetings, Barnicoat said, adding that EPA headquarters has to approve a policy before it can be done.
Nonetheless, Barnicoat has recorded the last two meetings and said he plans to upload the videos and provide links to the Butte public once the policy is in place.