Missoula Gulch

A band of golden light stretches across the top of the Butte Hill near Missoula Gulch on a December evening. 

Atlantic Richfield Company "anticipates spending another $100 plus million on (the Butte Hill) on remediation, remedy enhancements and community amenities" if the measures outlined in a proposed plan released this week are formalized in a consent decree governing the hill's cleanup later this year.

That's according to company spokesperson Michael Abendhoff, who also offered the first public accounting of how much Atlantic Richfield has spent on area Superfund cleanup in response to an inquiry by The Montana Standard on Friday.

According to Abendhoff, Atlantic Richfield has spent over $1.4 billion on investigation, remediation and restoration in the entire upper Clark Fork River basin.

The $1.4 billion includes about $280 million for remedial action on the Butte Hill, Abendhoff wrote.

This financial information has never before been publicly disclosed. The company has long been tight-lipped about how much it has spent on the largest Superfund complex in the U.S. By law, the former oil giant, now owned by BP, doesn’t have to make public its financial responsibilities as it cleans up the complex.

That complex includes the Berkeley Pit, which is considered the most contaminated water body in the country, as well as nearly 30 miles of creek and 44 river miles both damaged by more than 100 years of mining and smelting wastes that rendered much of the watershed devoid of even bugs, much less fish. The damage also contains the formerly denuded Butte Hill and more than 300 square miles where arsenic and lead from the Anaconda smelter emissions rained down.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been working in a revved-up process since fall of 2017 to get to a signed consent decree for the Butte Hill. EPA has set a deadline of August 12 for that to happen.

EPA recently released what it calls a proposed plan to give more details about the rest of the cleanup work, which agency officials have said should end by 2024. EPA first put Silver Bow Creek on the National Priorities List in 1983.

Nikia Greene, EPA project manager for the Butte Hill, told the Butte-Silver Bow council of commissioners this week that the “fundamental” change in the proposed plan is waiving state standards for copper and zinc during storms for Silver Bow and Blacktail creeks in town.

The proposed plan also includes a provision that would allow the EPA to potentially waive state standards for cadmium, lead and silver in the future.

Greene said last week that the EPA wants to see if the various storm water controls will keep cadmium, lead and silver below state water quality standards. But because there is some uncertainty about whether that will happen, EPA wants to have the option of waiving the state standard for those metals down the road if it becomes necessary.

He said Butte is a “mineralized area.”

“Those metals are everywhere,” he said.

Another element of the proposed plan involves expanding the residential metals abatement program, commonly known as RMAP. Under the plan, residents who live anywhere from the east county line to the west county line would be able to have both their attics and yards remediated, said Eric Hassler, B-SB Superfund operations manager.

If the plan is accepted, residents as far west as Ramsay and Fairmont can ask the county to test their soils and attics and receive a cleanup if the contamination is beyond the trigger levels for arsenic or lead.

“Everybody but Divide and Melrose gets the expansion,” Hassler said.

The proposed plan also offered some financial information on what the cleanup costs will be if the consent decree is signed, but it also left questions about Atlantic Richfield’s expenditures.

The EPA’s 2006 record of decision, which lays out the damage to the Butte Hill, says Atlantic Richfield’s overall original cost estimate was between $109,800,000 and $156,800,000.

Greene also said last week that Atlantic Richfield has spent “well over $100 million already” on the Butte Hill. That work includes the capping on the hill that rises above the town, removing contamination at the old Colorado tailings site and building a hydraulic system and a water treatment plant off Centennial Avenue that keeps a substantial amount of contamination from reaching Silver Bow Creek.

The work Atlantic Richfield has already paid for includes about 10 years of metal-abatement work to attics and yards in residents’ homes on the Butte Hill and, with some restrictions, beyond.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Mick Ringsak, a local GOP leader. “It’s much better than it was.”

Atlantic Richfield did not provide a breakdown of where the $1.4 billion has been spent, but public documents provide a rough outline.

According to court documents, Atlantic Richfield has spent $470 million so far at the Anaconda site. And according to previous reporting, Atlantic Richfield settled for $134 million with the state for the Clark Fork River cleanup. The state is now doing that work.

Atlantic Richfield also cashed out for $87 million with the state so the Department of Environmental Quality could lead the cleanup of lower Silver Bow Creek, according to previous stories. That work is largely complete. The $1.4 billion presumably includes that lower Silver Bow Creek cash out as well.

What Atlantic Richfield has spent and expects to spend on the Berkeley Pit remediation is unknown. There are no public documents that make the costs clear. But Atlantic Richfield splits costs with Montana Resources on the pit. How the split works between the companies is also not publicly known.

The two companies built the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant in 2002 and have since pitched in on upgrades. Atlantic Richfield is now building a polishing plant off Shields Avenue for that remediation work.

Since Atlantic Richfield says the $1.4 billion includes restoration, the money likely also involves a $320 million settlement with the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program to compensate the state for the lost resource.

It’s not clear how all of the additional $100 million for the Butte Hill will be spent, but the proposed plan released this week specified plans for nearly $37 million:

  • an additional $20 million to remove waste and groundwater controls at Blacktail Creek and the Slag Wall Canyon area to protect the creeks;
  • an extra $13 million to remove hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of metal-laden waste from George Street through the Slag Wall Canyon area to protect the creeks;
  • an extra $3 million to expand the residential metals abatement program;
  • and an additional $950,000 to control storm water at Grove Gulch.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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