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Extensive groundwater contamination at Parrot

This photo from last year shows groundwater contaminated with copper at the Parrot project site.

A project to remove highly contaminated smelter waste and groundwater from the former Parrot smelter site located behind the Butte Civic Center has risen in cost and faced repeated delays, according to officials from Montana's Natural Resource Damage Program, which is overseeing the project.

The total current estimated price tag to clean up the site is now $37.2 million, a more-than-$6-million jump from the state's estimate in September 2017, when the state announced that after prolonged negotiations with other parties — including BNSF Railway and Butte-Silver Bow — the project was ready to get started officially.

But Harley Harris, an NRDP attorney, told The Montana Standard last week that there is money for the project.

Those funds will be drawn from the Butte trust, a pot of money Atlantic Richfield Company will give the state as part a binding plan for the Butte Hill's Superfund cleanup known as a consent decree.

The consent decree is set to be signed in August, but exactly how much money the trust will end up contributing to the Parrot project is not known, Harris said.

Money from that trust is also earmarked for the Department of Environmental Quality’s planned cleanup of Blacktail Creek from the Lexington Avenue bridge to the confluence, and the cost of that work has also not been made public yet.

But the trust isn't the only potential source for additional money to complete the Parrot work.

Harris said there is another approximately $8 million in reserve that the NRDP can tap from restoration settlement money and that more funds could come from the lower Silver Bow Creek cleanup as well.

Since long before work got started at the Parrot site in September 2017, the state has been scrambling to find a way to make up for an expected “shortfall” to do the job, in large part because the EPA has long maintained — and still maintains — that the work is not necessary, and it has declined to force Atlantic Richfield to do the work under Superfund.

According to the EPA, excavation of the site's long-buried waste won't help the aquifer clean up in short order.

That has left the state to dip into settlement money meant for restoration projects to remove contamination at the Parrot site, which many local activists consider a necessary component of the larger Butte environmental cleanup.

According to Harris, the total $37.2-million price tag for the Parrot cleanup can be broken up into three main categories.

First, there's the $7 million that has already been spent to complete phase one of the project, which involved excavating contaminated soil and smelting byproducts on the north side of Civic Center Road. This first phase includes the $3.45-million cost of pumping highly contaminated groundwater from the site. (See related story.)

Next, the state will spend $14.2 million for the county shops — where Butte-Silver Bow's road-clearing equipment is kept and repaired — at a new site off Beef Trail Road.

The final element of the project will involve removing waste beneath the site where the county shops currently sit, on the south side of Civic Center Road. That second phase of the contaminated soils removal is expected to cost another $16 million or so.

Jim Ford, NRDP project manager for the Parrot removal, said last week that the $3.45 million in construction costs on phase one of the removal has come in under budget. The original construction estimate for phase one was about $5 million.

NRDP initially anticipated work on the project's second phase — excavating beneath the current site of the county shops — would have begun by this summer, and officials said earlier this year that they hoped to complete the entire project by the end of the 2020 construction season.

But Harris now says that the NRDP is “not hitting those aspirational goals” and may not be done next year.

A major factor in the delay has been issues moving the county shops, which is necessary to do before digging can begin.

Butte-Silver Bow only recently completed the design phase for relocating the shops and is on the brink of letting contractors start bidding to move the facilities to a property located off of Beef Trail Road that the county purchased last year from Hollow Construction.

But the bid process takes time, and Montana’s construction season is short, officials say, making it possible work won't begin on the shops until next year — and possible that it won't be completed until 2021, Ford said.

Jon Sesso, Butte-Silver Bow Superfund coordinator, said last week that the county still has to “work through the details” of moving the county shops and getting the new facility off Beef Trail Road up and running.

Sesso said the previous goal was to have the bid documents ready by May but noted that schedule was “very aggressive.”

Both Sesso and Harris say there's a hill on the Beef Trail Road property, and it poses a challenge to the project. Harris said that has impacted costs.

“We had other, better sites that didn’t pan out,” Sesso said, naming a Gilman Construction site and the Montana Pole Plant site as examples of preferable locations for the relocated shops. “We ended up there (off Beef Trail Road), and we’re making it work.”

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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