The state’s plan to move forward on the removal of toxic waste in the middle of Butte — even though it estimates it's short of money for the project by $14 million — leaves some community leaders scratching their heads.
Natural Resource Damage Program Director Harley Harris gave the financial assessment at last week’s Butte Natural Resource Damage Restoration Council meeting. Harris said the governor considers the removal “important,” and noted that, “we’re all in this together.”
But while Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer agreed that “we are all in it together as far as pushing to get the money,” he is worried that the state’s projected cost of approximately $31 million for the entire project may prove to be too rosy a picture.
“Nobody has a clue as to what the costs will come in at. Having a shortfall like that, I don’t know where they plan on getting the resources to do it,” Palmer said by phone Monday. “If they can’t do it because of money issues, I don’t know where it puts the Parrot tailings.”
The Parrot tailings are buried mining and smelting waste behind the Butte Civic Center, left from the former Parrot smelter, which operated in the late 1800s.
The Environmental Protection Agency said in its assessment of Butte's cleanup in 2006 that the groundwater contaminated by the tailings wouldn't reach Silver Bow Creek for 200 years. Even though the state says its own study in 2010 disproves that, EPA holds to its original plan that the tailings should remain "waste in place."
Gov. Steve Bullock announced in late 2015 that the state would take leadership on the project and remove the tailings instead of waiting for EPA to change its mind and order Atlantic Richfield Company, the responsible party, to clean it up.
The construction for the project has not yet gone out to bid. The state plans to send a package out for companies to bid on the project by early winter at the latest.
Harris said by phone Monday that if the bids come in significantly higher than the state anticipated, the NRD will have to reassess the situation. Harris said this concern is not unusual.
“It exists in every project the NRD participates in,” Harris said.
Both community leader Sister Mary Jo McDonald and Restore Our Creek Coalition spokesperson Northey Tretheway believe the state has all the money necessary to do the project. Tretheway pointed to additional restoration money that has been allocated to be spent downstream of Silver Bow Creek along the Clark Fork River.
“They wouldn’t even miss it,” Tretheway said Monday.
But NRD Restoration Program Chief Doug Martin said it’s not so simple. All the restoration dollars have already been allocated. Martin said all of the plans to spend money downstream went through a public process, which gave an opportunity for comment on how the money should be spent.
In order for those plans to change, the state would have to go through a new process, which would include a public comment period. Board members who sit on the Upper Clark Fork River Basin Advisory Council, some of whom live in communities downstream, would also have to be willing to go along with revising where the money should go.
But if the governor and board members who advise the state on how to spend the funds approved it, then “sure,” restoration dollars from the state’s settlement with Atlantic Richfield could be moved to support the removal of the Parrot tailings, Martin said.
But Harris told The Montana Standard Monday that when he said that “we’re all in this together” and Butte needs to help push on the Parrot tailings, he didn’t just mean push on the state itself.
“The community needs to make its needs and expectations known to all the players — EPA, Atlantic Richfield and the state as well as Butte-Silver Bow County,” Harris said.
Sister Mary Jo McDonald said the community has put pressure on the EPA and Atlantic Richfield “to no avail” and said Butte is “continually waiting.”
“We need the governor and others in leadership to step up to the plate and say, ‘Enough! We’ve waited long enough to get it done,’” McDonald said.