EPA public meeting at the Archives

Sister Mary Jo McDonald of Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition speaks Wednesday with Nikia Greene, the project manager of Butte Hill, before the public meeting with EPA officials. The meeting included the Environmental Protection Agency’s second in command, Albert “Kel” Kelly and Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento. 

Butte residents peppered some of the Environmental Protection Agency’s top brass Wednesday over health and other Superfund concerns at a meeting at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento brought Albert “Kell” Kelly, senior advisor to Administrator Scott Pruitt, with him to Butte to listen to what Butte residents had to say.

“Talking to Kell is talking to the administration,” Benevento said as part of his introduction of Kelly to the crowd. Kelly handed out his business card, which included his cell phone number. He said people could call or email him with questions or concerns.

“Don’t hold back on criticism — or compliments,” he added as a joke. “The administrator is very, very serious about this.”

People didn’t hold back during the hour and a half allotted for the meeting at the Archives. Though EPA officials have faced tougher meetings in Butte, there were a few barbs, and frequent concerns about health issues arose. One man volunteered he’s seen a lot of fibromyalgia in both Butte and Anaconda.

A retired nurse, Eileen Greb, said she would like to see a health study that investigates heavy metals in the blood of the elderly who’ve lived their entire lives in Butte.

Mary Kay Craig, who represents Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice, echoed that, saying that as a 75-year-old cancer survivor, she would be the first in line.

EPA Project Manager Nikia Greene is overseeing a health study for Butte that is gearing up. Greene said the program, which comes around every five years, “should’ve been called medical monitoring.”

“We focus on lead, arsenic, and mercury, but we’re hearing things from the community that there are concerns above and beyond that. I hear you loud and clear, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Butte resident Anna Dockter asked why the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was in Anaconda Tuesday, as part of EPA’s meeting before Anaconda residents and officials, but wasn’t in Butte.

Benevento said a representative from ATSDR could be involved in the Butte health study.  

Some questioned what people are being exposed to when the wind blows dust from the active mine at Montana Resources into the Flat, a heavily populated neighborhood southeast of Uptown. MR mines copper, molybdenum and a small amount of silver.

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Craig said the air monitor at the Greeley School, near MR, only picks up organics and does not monitor for heavy metals.

Questions about the consent decree, the binding legal document that will set in stone the remainder of the Butte Hill cleanup, also arose from members of the crowd.

Kelly told the public at the Archives that he’s been “around the country,” and has “never seen a gag order before.” He said it should be lifted as it creates doubt and is “hard on trust.”

Benevento said the lawyers for EPA and the other parties involved will have a status conference with U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon, in an effort to partially lift the gag order, on April 27. Benevento said EPA is working behind the scenes to get ready to address the public with the information — and what it will mean for Butte — when Haddon loosens the order.

The controversial West Side Soils, a section of the overall Silver Bow Creek/Butte area Superfund site, is getting some attention, EPA officials said at the meeting.

EPA has never before addressed West Side Soils in the agency’s 35-year tenure in Butte. Controversy remains over what portions of the county belong in West Side Soils and whether or not the Superfund designation includes — or should include — the Flat.

Butte Superfund officials told The Montana Standard last year that the Flat was always considered to be part of West Side Soils. But EPA told The Standard in December that it does not. According to EPA’s most recent definition of West Side Soils, it is a region that is largely north and west of Uptown.

An internal government report last year chided the agency for not even having determined, over more than three decades, whether human exposure to contamination is an issue in the West Side Soils area.

Greene said he is the project manager for West Side Soils, in addition to his responsibilities of overseeing the Butte Hill cleanup and other portions of Butte’s Superfund. He said he is working on gathering information on West Side Soils. EPA will likely hire a contractor early this summer to assist with the additional work of filling in data gaps and building plans for an investigation of the contamination.

An array of additional concerns was raised, from the "waste in place" solution to the controversial Parrot tailings, mine waste long ago deposited behind the Butte Civic Center. Mostly, Benevento and Kelly listened to the complaints but one comment Benevento did address head on.

Butte resident John Evankovich said he's seen more effective restoration in North Dakota than in Butte. He questioned why.

Benevento said he could hear Evankovich's skepticism of EPA, and said it is “warranted.” 

"I can’t make you not a skeptic," he said. "Judge us by our actions." 

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