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Montana Pole Plant

Interstates 15-90 slice through the old Montana Pole Plant site. As the state is trying to get the land south of the interstate ready for final stages of cleanup and hand off, one bioremediator says there's a chance white rot fungus could decompose the rest of the damage on the south side of the site. But DEQ has raised various reasons why the proposed solution won't be pursued.

A tool that exists naturally in the environment could solve the persistent problem with dioxin at the Montana Pole Plant Superfund site, one researcher says.

Clifford Bradley, who runs Missoula-based Montana BioAgriculture Inc., told the Department of Environmental Quality and Butte Superfund watchers Tuesday that white rot fungus could decompose the dioxin still at the site.

Dioxin is a carcinogen that can also cause reproductive and developmental problems, interfere with hormones and damage the immune system.

The Environmental Protection Agency named Montana Pole Plant a Superfund site in 1987 due to petroleum byproducts that leaked, spilled and dripped into the ground and groundwater during the nearly 40 years the wood-plant operated.

DEQ has been allowing microbes to break down the damage but, 22 years later, there’s still contamination at the site, particularly dioxin, which never responded to the microorganisms.

White rot fungus has the potential to eliminate almost all of that dioxin, Bradley says.

“The way it's discussed technically, you could get it to where you couldn't detect it (the dioxin contamination) anymore,” Bradley said. 

But there’s a hitch.

Actually, there are quite a few.

Money

The first issue with Bradley's proposed solution is money. The $30 million settlement the agencies negotiated with the responsible parties 22 years ago has hamstrung and now haunts DEQ. The agency is faced with myriad issues at the site even after more than two decades of trying to let microbes solve the problem. 

Ian McGruder, a technical adviser to Butte's Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, which translates Superfund issues for the public, also did some research on the fungi. After taking a look at the cost of using white rot fungus, McGruder said a rough estimate suggests that adding white rot fungus would add $10.5 million to the job.

But for a more accurate appraisal of the cost and of the effectiveness of white rot fungus at Montana Pole, the agency would have to spend between $100,000 to $150,000 for a study. 

Given all the issues that remain at the old pole plant, DEQ officials say it's too expensive a solution.

Time

A second issue with using the fungus to get rid of the dioxin is time. 

The fungus, which naturally rots fallen trees in the forest, is currently projected to take around 10 years to do its work. That could mean another 10 years of waiting for the site to be something else besides a fenced-off piece of no-man's land.

But Bradley says it's possible the fungi wouldn’t take 10 years. For a more accurate estimate, he again points to a study as a way to get better answers. 

Effectiveness

Another problem is the likely effectiveness of the fungus. Based on previous studies, the fungus is estimated to be around 96 percent effective on the dioxin. If that proved to be true, 96 percent decomposition would make the site safe enough to recreate on but not safe enough for people to work there without capping part of the soil.

But Bradley expressed optimism that “there is potential to hit the cleanup targets” on the dioxin. If so, then the southern portion of the property could be made ready for industrial use.

Another carcinogen

But the issues don't only have to do with dioxin. 

Dave Bowers, DEQ project manager for the site, said Tuesday that the main reason DEQ has to cap the site isn’t because of the dioxin but because of the leftover pentachlorophenol (PCP) that still contaminates the groundwater.

PCP is also a carcinogen. 

DEQ believes the cap will prevent PCP and dioxin from traveling in the soil after it’s all buried and capped. Rain water is what makes the contamination mobile.

Bradley questions that theory.

DEQ said via email that “in response to the more recent information on the mobility of PCP, DEQ will include a low-permeability material in the cover system.”  

Bradley said the white rot fungus would break down the PCP still at the site, thereby eliminating both contaminants from the southern portion of the old pole plant.

“The issue with the cap is it’s got to work for decades,” Bradley said.

Access

And there's yet another problem with Bradley's proposed solution. 

What the white rot fungus would not be able to do is solve the contamination that awaits DEQ underneath the interstate bridge on the north side of the site. The white rot fungus cannot be injected into the ground, and there’s no other way to access the “dirty dirt” underneath the interstate bridge.

That contamination under the bridge is part of what plagues DEQ. They have to be prepared to be there for the long haul--perhaps for 50 more years--and they need to hang onto as much as they can of the roughly $29 million they have left. As it is, the agency has previously acknowledged the money in the bank is insufficient for all the work still necessary.

Experimental or proven? 

As a result of these various issues, DEQ appears to have ruled white rot fungus out.

In an email to The Montana Standard, DEQ called white rot fungus “experimental.” So much so, the agency said, that it's not a possible solution, even though so many in Butte, including the Council of Commissioners, have expressed displeasure over the current plan, which is to bury and cap the remaining waste on the southern side of the site.

But Bradley told The Montana Standard that he provided DEQ with a report in 1994 about the effectiveness of white rot fungus, back when the agency was still considering its options for how to deal with the site.

At the time, the agency’s primary concern was eliminating the PCP, which is the most dangerous of the petroleum byproducts left behind at the site.

But DEQ said by email that even today, never mind in 1994, introducing fungi at the site “would be considered an experimental remedy because the efficacy has not been proven.”

Bradley begs to differ.

"In our field demonstration in 1994, it hit cleanup targets (for PCP)," he said. 

As for the dioxin problem, Bradley said that in 1994 DEQ wasn't focused on it. But, he said, literature existed as far back as 1994 that indicated white rot fungus could have decomposed the dioxin. 

In a memo sent last spring to county Chief Executive Dave Palmer, DEQ said that white rot fungus is “expensive and it’s less-than-reliable performance” means that the agency thinks it would still have to cap a portion of the site even after the white rot fungus was allowed to decompose the dioxin.

DEQ also said the agency believes capping and lining underneath the cap will “provide a protective barrier.”

The future

DEQ gave presentations this week before both CTEC and the Council of Commissioners on the state's next steps. The agency has posted a bid for construction to remove concrete pavement, asphalt vaults and unnecessary buildings and other structures to prepare the site for the burial-and-cap plan slated for next year.

The removal of structures will begin in mid-November and will likely be done within 55 calendar days, Jenny Chambers, DEQ remediation division administrator, told the council Wednesday. The agency will communicate with the residents who live around Butte’s smallest Superfund site about that upcoming work.

DEQ is also expecting to provide the Superfund document, called an Explanation of Significant Differences (ESD), that will allow them to move forward on their current burial-and-cap cleanup plan.

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the ESD when it comes out, but DEQ appears poised to move full steam ahead. Chambers told commissioners that DEQ expects to begin construction at the site next summer to bury and cap the “dirty dirt.”

The work to entomb the dioxin and remaining PCP under a cap would all take place within one construction season next year, she told the commissioners.

A final hitch

At Wednesday’s council meeting, Commissioner Jim Fisher asked what would happen if the county, which has the right of first refusal, chooses not to take the site from the state once it’s deemed sufficiently cleaned up by the agency.

Chambers said that if the county doesn’t want it, the state would seek out “a good steward” who would be prepared to respect the limitations that come with a site that contains buried and capped waste.

If a “good steward” does not come along, the land would remain in DEQ’s hands. And if that happens, there's potential for the site to remain a fenced-off piece of no-man’s land for a very long time to come.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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