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Cleanup of the Parrot Tailings continues

Water is pumped from the site of the Parrot Tailings in August. The old waste from the late 1800s is off Civic Center Road east of Harrison Avenue in Butte.

There is no more uncertainty — finishing the excavation of the old Parrot Smelter waste behind the Butte Civic Center is moving full steam ahead.

Mollie Maffei, Butte-Silver Bow County deputy attorney, said work to relocate the county shops to a location off Beef Trail Road is moving forward and work will begin this fall.

There is now enough money to pay for it.

Gov. Steve Bullock signed the plan in late September that will move pots of restoration dollars — money intended for things like plantings to heal Superfund scars — to pay the roughly $37 million price tag in its entirety to excavate the old Parrot waste that the state says is contaminating Silver Bow Creek. Part of that work includes relocating the county shops so the state can drill down and dig out the waste under the shops’ current location behind the Civic Center.

When the state committed itself to take the lead on removing the Parrot waste in late 2015, the state promised roughly half of the money needed for the project. But where the other half would come from was fraught with uncertainty and unknowns.

Once the shops are moved from the current location behind the Butte Civic Center, the state will resume taking out the toxic waste left from the Parrot Smelter, which operated on Silver Bow Creek in the late 1800s.

While most seem disappointed that restoration money is being used to finish what is widely viewed as a Superfund project, there was resignation and acceptance from many over the decision last week.

“I’m just glad to see the Parrot is going forward,” said Elizabeth Erickson, Butte Natural Resource Damage Council chair, on Friday.

The plan Bullock signed is not exactly the same as the one the state presented in August to the public. The state modified that plan so less money would come from the Butte Natural Resource Damage Council (BNRC) and that, if the state is able to reimburse the restoration funds down the road, a greater percentage will go back to the BNRC than previously planned and elsewhere.

Mick Ringsak, who sits on the Upper Clark Fork River Basin Advisory Council, said the state made the modifications because of the response it got from the public in August to its plan.

“They tried to make it a little more equitable,” Ringsak said. “A little less will come from the Butte Natural Resource Damage Council. They’re in deep already. They made a real commitment to the community.”

The BNRC put down the original $10 million several years ago to signal to the state just how important getting the toxic waste out is to the community.

But Erickson expressed concern after the August meeting that too much money would be coming from the BNRC’s bank account based on the NRD’s plan offered over the summer.

Erickson said in August the plan, as it was presented over the summer, would leave the BNRC with not much of anything to work with in the future.

Under the modified plan, the state will move $5.3 million from the BNRC account, instead of the originally proposed $5.8 million, shaving off $500,000 from that restoration fund.

Money the Upper Clark Fork Advisory Council oversees will now provide a bigger stake. That account has been tapped to increase by $500,000 to $5.2 million, instead of the previously recommended $4.7 million.

Ringsak said the Upper Clark Fork Advisory Council, which has members from all up and down the watershed, has more money to work with than the BNRC does.

Leftover funds from the state-led lower Silver Bow Creek cleanup will be increased by $1 million. That pot will now supply $5 million toward the project instead of the previously recommended $4 million.

Northey Tretheway, spokesperson for Restore Our Creek Coalition, said it “sounds like they listened.”

But, Carl Hamming, Powell County planner, said the upper Clark Fork River “is on the losing end of things.”

“It’s potentially harmful for Deer Lodge,” Hamming said of the modified plan.

The Natural Resource Damage Program (NRD) staff met with an outraged public and angry members of the Butte Natural Resource Damage Council (BNRC) and Upper Clark Fork Advisory Council in August over the state’s proposal to go ahead by going it alone and paying for the entire job.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the mine and smelter waste 30 feet to 50 feet below ground behind the Civic Center doesn’t need to come out. EPA and Atlantic Richfield Company argue that a horizontal pipe buried five feet deep adequately captures any toxic groundwater and prevents it from getting to the creek.

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The EPA’s position has left the community and the state with years of teeth-grinding frustration. Some of the most animated public meetings occur when the Parrot waste is discussed.

But given the EPA’s stance on the issue, Atlantic Richfield cannot be held responsible for the cleanup.

That has left the state with what appears to be its only option — which has been to remove the “dirty dirt,” and pay for it out of restoration money the state won after years of litigation against Atlantic Richfield for the lost resource due to more than 100 years of mining and smelting.

Of all the many issues that perplex, irritate or scare residents about one of the largest Superfund complexes in the nation, perhaps the hottest flash point in Butte has been the Parrot waste buried behind the Civic Center. Erickson previously said that when the BNRC formed several years ago to decide how to spend $28 million in restoration money around Butte, the best attended meetings were the ones with the Parrot waste on the agenda.

Hamming, like everyone closely involved in this issue, has expressed support for removing the Parrot waste. But, the loss of restoration money means less money to repair problems spots along the entire watershed.

Now all eyes will be on what the projected Butte trust will bring.

The state’s proposal includes provisions that once the long-awaited consent decree is signed, Atlantic Richfield will provide fresh money to the state. That money, called the Butte Trust, will be used by the state to lead the cleanup on Blacktail Creek near the confluence.

But money left over from that work is now expected to repay the restoration accounts, according to the NRD plan.

The NRD made it plain in August that there are a lot of “ifs” involved with this idea. There is no guarantee there will be money left over from the Blacktail Creek cleanup to send money back to the restoration accounts to replace the Parrot’s price tag. Or if there is some money, there may not be enough to fully replenish the pots.

Hamming said he “doesn’t necessarily feel reassured” but, nonetheless, he has his hope pinned on the Butte trust.

The EPA said last month it expects “pens down” on the still closed-door consent decree negotiations by Oct. 11.

The consent decree will finalize Atlantic Richfield’s responsibilities on the Butte Hill cleanup once it’s signed. The negotiators have been arguing over it for 13 years.

The EPA announced an agreement had been reached in January 2018 but has repeatedly had to postpone providing the public with the finished decree — one the public can take a look at — since then.

But the step the state has taken on the Parrot waste, despite the compromises the state — and its citizens — have had to make to get it done, is viewed as not just necessary but a positive move by some.

Tretheway said getting the Parrot waste out of the ground was a major cornerstone to Restore Our Creek Coalition’s mission when it formed some years ago to pressure the agencies to enforce Atlantic Richfield to rebuild upper Silver Bow Creek.

"It's a very great step in the right direction and we're very appreciative to the governor," Tretheway said. 

But he also worried about the pots expected to be reimbursed from the Butte trust. Tretheway said Butte needs all the restoration dollars it can get.

Erickson said there will be a lot of need in the corridor along upper Silver Bow Creek once Atlantic Richfield has done its work to clean up the corridor. Atlantic Richfield is expected to take additional waste out where an upper Silver Bow Creek existed before prospectors came to mine in the late 1800s.

Marissa Perry, Bullock’s press secretary, said by email Bullock carefully weighed all the comments the state received on the plan.

“His decision affirms his view that the most durable solution to address the main source of contamination to groundwater in Butte is to proceed with the second half of the Parrot waste removal project while maintaining the integrity of existing restoration plans,” Perry wrote.

Both the BNRC and the Upper Clark Fork Advisory Council recommended, with some expressed frustration, the NRD's plan to Bullock in August.

Tretheway said that even while the certainty of resolving the Parrot waste is good news, there is much more needed to try to make the mining town whole.

“Butte still needs much work done here,” Tretheway said.

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