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Parrot Tailings

Crews work on at the site of the Parrot Tailings on Civic Center Road a few blocks east of Harrison Avenue in Butte this past summer.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the 13-year wait is about to end. The negotiators will get to “pens down,” by Friday as promised, Chris Wardell, EPA community involvement section chief for Region 8, said in an email.

Wardell said the negotiators, “anticipate that we will reach the ‘pens down’ deadline” Friday. He wrote that once the pens are down, the people who have been sweating out the details at highly confidential talks for nearly two years will be able to provide an update then on what happens next.

The EPA has been promising this historic moment for two years. Doug Benevento, former EPA Region 8 administrator, said almost as soon as he took the job in October 2017 that the Butte Hill would get a consent decree within a few months.

While the negotiators did meet that deadline with a verbal agreement, the parties have still been duking it out behind closed doors over the details for more than a year and a half. The parties at the table have also overshot previous deadlines the EPA set for the “pens down” moment over the course of those nearly two more years to get to this moment.

The consent decree, which will finalize exactly what Atlantic Richfield has left to do on the Butte Hill, has been long awaited. It means the light at the end of a 36-year tunnel of the Butte Hill being on the EPA’s National Priorities List. It means the beginning of the end of what many activists in town refer to as the “Superfund stigma” that they say impacts the town’s economic prosperity and potential to grow.

The secret talks began in 2006 but the Mining City’s Superfund history began with the Butte Hill becoming a part of the larger Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site in the 1980s. And since the talks began, even information such as where the participants are meeting is private. Under court order, no one is allowed to speak about what is being discussed or what has held up the negotiations over the last 2½ years, even though all levels of government — the county, the state and federal agencies — are involved.

Over those 13 years there were periods where the talks broke down — over what exactly is also confidential. But one reason for the painstakingly slow clock on consent decree talks is the sheer magnitude, size and complexity of the site. The Butte Hill includes lead and arsenic cleanup in yards and homeowners’ attics; stormwater problems; long-buried “dirty dirt” in the center of town; remediation of Butte Reduction Works, an old industrial site; relocating a small portion of Silver Bow Creek and finding a new life for the slag wall canyon at South Montana Street; excavating pollution along both Blacktail and Silver Bow creeks south of town; and contending with zinc issues on the south side of the creeks.

The physical boundaries include Uptown, Walkerville, the Upper and Lower West Side, a small portion of the Flat and Timber Butte to the south.

Jon Sesso, Butte-Silver Bow County Superfund coordinator, said by phone from Hawaii of the impending agreement, its “been a long time coming.”

Sesso, who is both county’s Superfund coordinator, and a state senator in the Montana Legislature, took a break to talk to The Montana Standard while en route from an official trip to Taiwan. He was there with other area representatives to promote business relations.

The moment is particularly poignant for Sesso. He has held his post as Superfund coordinator since the early 1990s and has been in the thick of all things Superfund since then. He has sat at the negotiating table since the beginning. 

“I’m very encouraged (about reaching Friday’s deadline) by the diligence that everyone has invested over these last couple of months … it’s been a level of effort I haven’t seen in the past,” Sesso said.

Eric Hassler, county Superfund operations manager, called the work, especially of late, “intense.”

“We’re anxiously awaiting the next 72 hours,” Hassler said earlier in the week.

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So is Restore Our Creek Coalition.

Restore Our Creek Coalition asked for a $50,000 grant from the EPA to get a study done that will tell the coalition if a genuine creek can be really be built through the center of town sometime in the future.

Northey Tretheway, coalition spokesperson, said his group hopes the negotiators will wait on getting final signatures to the consent decree until the coalition can get the answers it seeks. The coalition hired Water and Environmental Technologies (WET) to do the study.

“Our message is Superfund’s been going on for a long, long time. We asked for (the grant) money for a year. We shouldn’t trip over ourselves now. We shouldn’t make hasty decisions,” Tretheway said.

Tretheway said the coalition is getting updates weekly but the study won’t be complete until early December.

Whether the EPA will put the signature side of the process on hold until December is unknown at this stage. But Sesso said that once pens are down, the expectation is that getting the four John Hancocks from state, federal, county and Atlantic Richfield officials onto the consent decree will likely take about a month.

Sesso said the attachments to the consent decree will be of particular importance — it’s the attachments that will lay out the actual scope of work Atlantic Richfield will have agreed to do. The attachments will also offer up exactly what the future will bring for the Butte Hill in terms of Atlantic Richfield’s operations and maintenance agreements in the long term. That’s important because the Butte Hill is largely a “waste in place,” solution and the vegetative cap over it has the potential to someday fail.  

Not everyone sees this stage of the long chess game called Superfund negotiations in a positive light. Local activist Sister Mary Jo McDonald provided a lengthy list of worries, including the anticipated stormwater ponds in the proposed 120-acre park between Texas Avenue and George Street.

“Can you imagine sitting on a bench looking over this pond and it doesn’t have enough water in it?” McDonald asked.

She also cited a concern about the projected one cubic feet per second of water to run through a proposed water feature that could recycle water in parts of the proposed 120-acre park.

“That they want to satisfy us with this little water feature that will have one cubic feet per second is absolutely bizarre and the ditch (the straightened channel from Texas Avenue to George Street) couldn’t possibly resemble a creek,” McDonald said.

McDonald said the negotiators did not “listen to Butte” over the Parrot tailings removal. Final funding from state coffers to complete the state’s excavation of long-buried mining and smelting waste behind the Butte Civic Center just got the thumbs up from Gov. Steve Bullock last month. McDonald fears the negotiators have not listened to anything else that residents have said they want, including holding off on giving Atlantic Richfield a waiver of state water quality standards in the creeks for copper during storms.

“Butte is not getting what it deserves and needs,” McDonald said. “The people of Butte need to have a little uprising on this and take to the streets. This is not sufficient.”

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