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Slag Canyon

Slag bricks from the old Butte Reduction Works, a former smelter, are seen off South Montana Street in this file photo, north of Interstate 15-90. The slag was poured on both sides of Silver Bow Creek, creating a canyon of sorts. The gag order on the Butte Hill cleanup has been loosened and new information about what the parties agreed to verbally in January has come to light. One of the proposed actions is to relocate Silver Bow Creek in this area and remove tailings waste buried under and within the slag walls.

Editor's note: This story was corrected at 11 a.m. 1/18/18 to reflect the following correction: Restore Our Creek Coalition's petition was partly an online petition, rather than an online petition.

As the Council of Commissioners debated the importance of taking a closer look at Butte’s Superfund issues, one commissioner questioned whether the commissioners were being honest.

Despite the debate, the commissioners on Wednesday voted 11-0 (Bud Walker was absent) to pass Commissioner Jim Fisher’s request that the group take a “proactive approach” to Superfund issues, and ask local experts to explain aspects of the largest Superfund complex in the nation.

Commissioner Dan Foley said that longtime Superfund watchdog Fritz Daily is behind Fisher’s request. Foley said the council has been paying attention to Butte’s Superfund and that the vote was “pandering” to the audience.

“This effort isn’t coming directly from this council,” Foley said. “If we’re not screaming about this every single week, it doesn’t mean we don’t care.”

Daily was not at the meeting.

Fisher said Foley’s comments “disappointed” him. He said Daily is in his district and said that he is honest.

The commission also voted — 11-0 with Bud Walker absent — to begin looking for money for the next year’s budget to hire outside legal counsel in case the county decides it needs to sue the agencies and Atlantic Richfield Company.

Both votes came after Northey Tretheway, with the Restore Our Creek Coalition, told the council that the group seeking a meandering creek from Texas Avenue to George Street has received about 3,500 signatures on a partly online petition. The signatures support the coalition’s efforts to demand the agencies remove mining and smelting waste from Texas Avenue to George Street.

Tretheway said his group intends to take the petition to Gov. Steve Bullock and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Helena office this week.

Montana Tech professor John Ray spoke at length about the importance of the commissioners’ vote to take a more “proactive approach” to Butte’s Superfund.

Ray said the agencies don’t respond to individual citizen’s questions but the council could hold the agencies accountable.

Foley disagreed with Ray, saying that he’s asked EPA questions as a commissioner and “most of the time, they don’t know the answer.”

“We’re not changing any process here,” Foley said.

The commissioners’ vote comes just a week before EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento is expected to announce a major decision about the next step for the Butte Hill, which is one section of the larger Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site. EPA’s final legal agreements with Atlantic Richfield Company over how much of the Butte Hill will be cleaned has been under a 10-year confidential negotiation.

If EPA announces it has reached an agreement in principle with Atlantic Richfield and the other parties and state agencies, the agreement will come before the commissioners for a vote.

Berkeley Pit

In this April 2015 photo, the Berkeley Pit, with the Bell-Diamond Headframe in the distance, can be seen.

EPA declared the Butte area a Superfund site in 1983. The damage, which is about 30 miles long and includes the Berkeley Pit, is due to around 100 years of historic mining and smelting.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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