Evan Barrett and EPA's Sopkin

As Region 8 Administrator Greg Sopkin, left, holds a request to extend the comment period on changes to the Butte Hill Record of Decision, Evan Barrett of Butte makes his case Tuesday after handing Sopkin the request at a meeting of stakeholders with Sopkin.

Butte residents will have more time to comment on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed changes to its cleanup plan.

The EPA announced the 30-day extension Tuesday afternoon after community leader Evan Barrett formally asked for it, saying that “we haven’t weighed perception challenges seriously enough as individuals.”

Barrett specifically cited the fact that much of Montana believes Butte is a “dirty water,” town. Drinking water in Butte is often called the “best in the state” by government officials because it comes from far away water resources such as the Big Hole River and Basin Creek and then goes through state-of-the-art water treatment plants. But because of the Berkeley Pit, the most contaminated body of mine waste water in the U.S., sits on the edge of town, the perception remains and worries many community leaders that it is a stigma the Mining City cannot shake.

Barrett pointed to Helena, Missoula and Bozeman all as growing, while Butte remains “static.”

Barrett said that because so much is riding on the EPA's actions, the community deserved more time to react to the plan.

The proposed changes include such things as waiving state water quality standards for copper and zinc during storm events in the creeks through the southern portion of town, expanding the county’s Residential Metals Abatement Program to include more homes, and formalizing that upper Silver Bow Creek, from Texas Avenue to George Street, will never again be called “Metro Storm Drain” or “MSD Channel” in official EPA documents.

The public now has until July 11 to comment. (See information box.)

Barrett made his request through email but also brought it up at a stakeholder meeting Tuesday morning with Greg Sopkin, the new EPA Region 8 administrator, at the Butte-Silver Bow Archives. (See related story.)

The EPA said Tuesday that it will respond to the public's comments through a document called a responsiveness summary. That will come out when the EPA lodges the consent decree, which will etch into stone the final cleanup plans Atlantic Richfield has yet to finish.

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Sopkin said extending the deadline will not interfere with getting to a consent decree by the deadline established by outgoing EPA Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento. That deadline is August 12.

Joe Vranka, EPA Montana Superfund chief, said the EPA will have to explain itself to the public in the responsiveness summary.

“The EPA has to consider those comments and either incorporate them into the final decision or respond why we’re not incorporating them into the final decision,” Vranka said.

Long-time activist Sister Mary Jo McDonald asked Sopkin pointedly if the public's comments will “have any impact” on the proposed changes.

Sopkin said they would.

“It’s not set in stone,” he said of the changes the EPA would like to make. “It’s our job to look at every document and that’s what we’ll do. I can’t agree with every comment but I have personally seen comments change the situation.”

Barrett said the extension is necessary because giving the public a chance to be heard by the EPA is necessary.

“It doesn’t happen all the time that we get to address the waiver of water quality standards and the action level on lead, both of which greatly affect the perception of Butte’s health implications and perception implication,” he said.

Butte’s action level on lead is 1,200 parts per million (ppm) in soil or attic dust and some say that is too high. The Department of Housing and Urban Development's standard for lead is 400 ppm. Anaconda, which relatively recently adopted a standard for lead, is also set at 400 ppm.    

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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