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A mine dump along Orofino Gulch

A motorcyclist rides on a mine dump along Orofino Gulch north of Butte in September. The dump area is a portion of West Side Soils, where EPA doesn't know yet who the responsible party or parties are.

How the Environmental Protection Agency prioritized its cleanup decisions — and failed to take action over the last 34 years on a section of Butte's Superfund — will be up for discussion when agency officials come before the Council of Commissioners Wednesday.

EPA is paying a visit because of a federal study released in September that said EPA did not yet know if residents living on the Flat and west of Uptown are exposed to heavy metals.

The meeting starts at 7:30 p.m. in the courthouse council chambers.

Commissioners sent a letter in October requesting that "ranking representatives" of EPA appear and respond to "claims in a recently released, EPA-sanctioned report" that the Flat and a poorly defined area west of Uptown "have not been addressed as part of overall Superfund cleanup actions."

The report, produced internally by EPA's Office of the Inspector General in September, says that EPA has "insufficient data to determine whether human exposure is under control" in the area known by EPA as West Side Soils, which includes both the Flat and the undefined area west of Uptown.

"Potential health threats include direct contact with and ingestion of contaminated soil, surface water and groundwater and inhaling contaminated soil," the report states.

EPA announced in October that it would name a project manager to that section of the overall Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site and get to work by June 2018. EPA declared Silver Bow Creek a Superfund site in 1983.

Current project manager for the Butte Hill Nikia Greene volunteered to take on the work.

However, EPA regional administrator Doug Benevento said Friday that due to Butte's Superfund site becoming part of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt's "emphasis list," more resources will be allocated to Butte.

That could mean Butte will get more EPA project managers. Currently, Greene oversees almost all of Butte's approximate 30-mile site.

EPA announced Friday that both Butte and Anaconda Superfund sites would be a part of Pruitt's "emphasis list." That means Pruitt will have direct oversight on the portions of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site — including West Side Soils — yet to be completed.

The work on West Side Soils will involve investigating the damage and determining who the responsible party or parties are. While Atlantic Richfield Company is the primary responsible party for the Berkeley Pit, the Butte Hill, and Silver Bow Creek, the former oil giant is not necessarily the responsible party for the section known as West Side Soils.

The council's October letter to EPA makes reference to a resolution commissioners passed in 2015 that requests, in part, that Butte's cleanup and restoration "is permanent, effective and in the best interests, health and welfare of the citizens of Butte-Silver Bow…"

Vranka said in his early December letter to the council that since receiving the request from commissioners, EPA has been "actively gathering archived information regarding the prioritization decisions within the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund Site in order to respond to the council..."

Vranka points out in the letter that the Butte Hill and the Berkeley Pit were the priorities when EPA arrived decades ago. A decision and legal agreements on how to address the Berkeley Pit — which many say is one of Butte's most pressing problems — were reached by 2002.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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