Consent decree is a coda for Sesso's 4-decade career
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Consent decree is a coda for Sesso's 4-decade career

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Let the record show that Jon Sesso made his stand here, on the windswept, waste-strewn hillsides around Missoula Gulch.

Let it be known that he came to Butte, Montana, a Midwestern hippie environmentalist technical writer fresh out of graduate school with ecological stars in his eyes, unabashedly dedicated to making  the world a better place, and ended up spending four decades making Butte a better place.

From his courthouse corner office, from his prolific writing and dreaming and scheming and explaining, yes, we will not be forgetting the explaining, came year after year of progress: houses built and grass and families grown on a hillside that once bore nothing but the dirty dirt that held the ore which made miners' livelihoods and the Anaconda Company's profits. A pioneering computerized system of land records — a digitized sense of where you are — that was a prerequisite to cleanup.

A clean walking trail that once held rails — and hiding beneath them a ribbon of contamination through the neighborhoods of Uptown Butte. A recreation center south of town built on top of the waste of zinc and magnesium and copper and silver mining and smelting. Mineyards reclaimed and headframes scraped and painted and lit and revered. A memorial made to the worst underground hard-rock mining disaster the country has known.

A clean water system that enabled everything else that followed. A landfill and a sewage treatment plant and a mine-flooding consent decree and an allocation agreement with Atlantic Richfield and water for industrial development and finally, this past week, a hard-won consent decree for the Butte Hill.

Through it all he has made implacable enemies and a slew of detractors. Yet he has won six elections and forged a coalition, operating from the minority, to make significant progress in the Legislature. He has served as Minority Leader of both the House and, for the past 10 years, the Senate.

Certainly, everything he has done has been second- and third-guessed. Including by this writer and by this newspaper.

But at the end of the day, even his enemies admit, he's going to leave this place one hell of a lot better than he found it.

***

Jon Sesso grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, a manufacturing town two-thirds of the way up the coast of Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee. (Somehow, he managed to be a Chicago Cubs fan despite the geographic closeness to first the Braves, then the Brewers. Some of us admittedly consider this a redeeming quality.)

His father was a chemist and an executive with S.C. Johnson & Son, a company that, from its quirky Frank Lloyd Wright-designed headquarters in Racine, pumps out quality-of-life enhancers like Johnson Wax, Pledge, Raid, Kiwi polish, Ziploc bags and Scrubbing Bubbles.

In the course of his ecological education in the early 1970s, Jon Sesso discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were damaging the ozone layer. He berated his father for the fact that the Johnson Co. was using CFCs in their aerosol cans of Pledge and Glade and Raid, among others.

"My father told me he knew that, and asked me if I had any idea what was involved in retooling a factory to change a product. He said he was already in the process of getting that done.

"That taught me a lot about the fact that change can't happen overnight."

(Johnson would announce in June of 1975 it was removing CFCs from its containers — the first industry giant to do so — and in countries where they weren't able to use alternative means of production, they walked away from their markets.)

In school, Sesso also became familiar with — and fascinated by — the writing and teachings of Barry Commoner, one of the early leaders of the environmental movement. Commoner taught for more than three decades at Washington University in St. Louis, and wrote the groundbreaking ecological bible and bestseller, "The Closing Circle," published in 1971. He ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1980. Sesso, meanwhile, worked with Commoner in graduate school.

Commoner's four laws of ecology — everything is connected to everything else; everything must go somewhere; nature knows best; and there is no such thing as a free lunch — would never lose their relevance to Sesso's career.

***

He came to Butte, to the National Center for Appropriate Technology, in 1978. The organization, founded in 1976, was an apt reflection of Commoner's thinking, with the mission of promoting sustainable living. The national organization was headquartered in Butte primarily through the stewardship and political muscle of Mike Mansfield, then Senate Majority Leader.

In 1980, another environmental milestone would occur: the passage of CERCLA, the legislation establishing Superfund.

"I was vaguely aware of it back then," Sesso says. "But of course, at that point it didn't affect Butte." Butte would be named to Superfund in 1983, but it wasn't until 1986 that Superfund was amended to sharpen focus on "high-volume low toxicity" waste sites, like the mining and smelting waste of Butte and the Clark Fork Valley.

At NCAT, Sesso would soon get a first-hand demonstration of political change and its consequences. With the election of Ronald Reagan, different economic philosophies prevailed — and NCAT was very nearly out of business. The headcount there dropped precipitously, from 108 to eight.

Sesso was one of the surviving eight, and over the next six years was instrumental in building the organization back up. He says he's proud to see NCAT thrive today.

In 1988, Sesso took a position with the Montana State Library.

There, he succeeded naturalist Larry Thompson, who had helped to develop the first catalog of natural resource information by "latilong," or latitude and longitude. Before the advent of the system, whenever an agency needed to produce an Environmental Impact Statement, for instance, they would be starting from scratch on a site description. But by using latilong-coded spatial information, the process became much easier.

After Thompson's untimely death from a brain tumor, Sesso took a great measure of responsibility for the system at the library. In the process, he learned the way the Legislature worked, since the library was dependent on the lawmakers for grants.

Ultimately, the Natural Resource Information System became a key part of the Montana State Library, which to this day administers the state's Spatial Data Infrastructure, including the cadastral system, which would become vital in Sesso's next job.

That job, Butte-Silver Bow planning director, started in 1991.

The '80s had been a pivotal decade in Butte. In 1982, the Atlantic Richfield Co. stopped mining the Berkeley Pit and shut off the pumps keeping the Pit dewatered. That and the closing of the Anaconda smelter devastated the economy of the region.

Then, in 1986, Dennis Washington bought the mining assets and started mining again, and attention at the same time turned toward the coming cleanup.

As a part of buying the mine from Atlantic Richfield, Washington ended up as the owner of Butte's ramshackle residential water system. Dennis Washington has run a lot of businesses successfully, but one he didn't want to mess with was the water system. It was in terrible condition; Butte was under a boil order for two years, and schoolchildren were told to drink soda or juice instead of using the water fountains.

A citizens group led by Sister Mary Jo McDonald promptly sued Washington. Sesso, as planning director, found himself caught in the middle between the litigants and Washington. With the litigation as a backdrop, the local government took control of the water system in 1992, and in 1996, as part of the suit settlement, received ownership of the Silver Lake Water System.

"From an economic development standpoint, from a public safety standpoint, we knew that fixing the water system was step one," Sesso said. "We couldn't do anything if that didn't happen. Superfund was still second-fiddle to the water.

"We decided that the most important thing we could do was invest in the water system. It was the lifeblood of our ability to control our economic future," he said.

The pumps at the power house dam on the Big Hole River and the transmission system from there to Feely, and on to the city; the Moulton and Basin Creek parts of the system; and some 17,000 linear feet of residential lines all needed work. The team at Butte-Silver Bow decided early on nobody was more qualified to fix Butte's water system than Butte, and that philosophy carried over for the many years it has taken to get the water system to its current excellent state.

Under the Natural Resources Damage claim system the state was determined to negotiate with Atlantic Richfield for Butte. But when it came to the water system, Butte was equally determined to negotiate its own deal. "That was the beginning of some of the bad blood" between Butte and the state NRD, Sesso said. "They couldn't abide the notion that Butte was going to start fighting for itself," he said. But eventually, after the first NRD settlement in 1998, Butte worked within the grant system NRD established. Practically every year since, Butte has received grants to compensate for the loss of its drinking water from mining, and most of that grant money went to the drinking water system, in addition to bonding and other settlement sums.

The result is one of the things Sesso is proudest of.

"The water decisions represent the foundation of the thinking we brought to local government," he said. "Our attitude is that nobody cares more about the future of this town than we do."

Meanwhile, as a part of setting up institutional controls of the waste in place remedy on the Butte Hill, it was crucial to know who owned what property. Everything was in paper records, and the ownership of some parcels was intentionally obfuscated over the years. The development of the town's Geographic Information System took the county's cadastral land records from worst to best in the state, and the system was eventually expanded to manage all the data for the Upper Clark Fork River Superfund sites.

Once the number and nature of all the land parcels was known, Butte was able to negotiate an allocation agreement with Atlantic Richfield that, among other things, provided money to address any development issues caused by excavation on any of the properties.

At the same time all of that was happening, Butte was dealing with being named as a potential responsible party, along with Atlantic Richfield, for the environmental issues on the Butte Hill.

"In some ways it was good to be named," Sesso said. "We discovered when the Mine Flooding CD was being negotiated that not being a PRP meant we were in the dark."

A big issue at the time was lead poisoning in children. As blood lead sampling began in Butte, it became evident the data showing which children had high blood lead didn't precisely match up with unremediated soils where they lived. That got people realizing Butte also had a major problem with lead paint and lead in water pipes. That, in turn led to the Residential Metals Abatement Program, which has been a point of pride for the county, and is now is proposed under the new Butte Hill consent decree draft to be expanded to the Flats and elsewhere in the area as needed.

By the mid-90s, Sesso had turned his attention in part to properties the county owned and/or could take control of where redevelopment could occur. The first major initiative was what became the Tullamore subdivision, near Missoula Gulch, where mine wastes and lots of shafts and stopes had left the hillside essentially unusable.

The waste was capped, the county put in curbs and gutters, and with the help of Barbara Miller and Bob Corbett and the National Affordable Housing Network, the first dozen or so houses were occupied in 1998 on a cul-de-sac, Tullamore Street, just north of Empire Street.

Sesso drives through the neighborhood today and points proudly to the houses, which are in good condition and occupied with families — some the same ones who initially bought there. "See the big yard there?" he said. "That's because there's a mine shaft underneath where nothing could be built, but it works fine as a yard, doesn't it?"

Another set of 12 homes was built further north, on Missoula and Pacific streets, and they were finished in 1999.

The county had to put a ditch in to corral the Missoula Gulch stormwater. But the project has been a big success.

A combination of federal grants and loans, and the county's determination, produced a 24-unit affordable housing development where nothing but waste was present before. "Working with Barbara and Bob we married the need for affordable housing with a need for redevelopment. The county provided the land and Habitat built the houses. Low-income housing for central Butte was the focal point of our work."

Acquiring mineyards and making sure they were preserved and maintained has also been one of Sesso's priorities.

At one point it was thought Butte wasn't eligible for brownfields reclamation grants from EPA because of its Superfund status, but with the help of a red-tape-cutting Max Baucus, Sesso managed to obtain brownfields funds and funds under the Historic Preservation Act that have enabled preservation projects including the Granite Mountain Memorial, among other things.

While removing the old rail line through Uptown did not please rail buffs, there was no way to keep it and mitigate the contamination from the waste the railbed was built on, Sesso said. So the Copperway Trail system was born, linking up with the Greenway trail system.

"I think it was the first time a lot of the public connected with how Superfund could result in something positive," Sesso said.

Similarly, the Copper Mountain recreation complex took a problem and created an asset.

Some 1.2 million cubic yards of tailings around the former Colorado Smelter in Lower Area One needed to be remediated, and the county had a huge area of tailings called the Clark tailings near Timber Butte south of town and the old county landfill that had to be closed safely under new regulations.

"We started thinking about the whole ecosystem," Sesso said. "Sucking dirty dirt out of the ground and trucking it somewhere else and putting it in the ground again wasn't making a lot of sense."

(Barry Commoner's law No. 2: Everything must go somewhere. There is no "waste" in nature and there's no "away" to which things can be thrown.)

So the innovative solution was to place the Colorado tailings on top of the Clark tailings, then cap the whole area. On top of the cap is now the Copper Mountain recreational complex.

Now, the attention will turn to the Butte Hill cleanup. Sesso has clashed with activists who want a creek running through the area that is by court order "Upper Silver Bow Creek," and used to be called the Metro Storm Drain.

He is open-minded about the creek plan recently deemed feasible in an EPA-funded study, but quickly adds he feels the design in the consent decree provides park-like amenities that will go a long way toward satisfying community desires, while also providing a necessary storm water management solution.

More arguments will doubtless follow, about the creek and other things. But Sesso, who loves to explain, is just happy to be able to finally talk about the cleanup plan after more than a dozen years of a federally-imposed gag order.

Whatever is ultimately thought of the consent decree, it represents closure of sorts for Sesso, who has been the county's Superfund coordinator for nearly 30 years. He's also termed out of the Legislature. So it's an appropriate time for him to take stock of what he's done in his career, and this long list represents the things he's proudest of.

He's not done, but he's done a lot.

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