The parties to the conceptual Superfund agreement on the Butte Hill sought Wednesday to reassure the public that the cleanup will be robust and leave the Mining City proud.
Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the state, the county and Atlantic Richfield Company showed up Wednesday for three public meetings to discuss the details on the proposed way forward. EPA Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento said that the secrecy that has enshrouded the Butte Hill cleanup talks for over a decade ends now.
“Never again will you hear from us that we can’t talk about it,” Benevento said to the crowd of perhaps 100 people during a noon meeting at Montana Tech. “What you may hear is, we don’t know yet, we’re working on that.”
Nikia Greene, Butte Hill project manager for EPA, expressed relief that U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon’s gag order has been lifted for the Butte Hill.
“What a day, I’m excited,” Greene said at the noon meeting. “It’s a good feeling to be standing up here today and say, ‘I have an answer for that or I can talk about that.’”
EPA explained at that meeting that other aspects of the gag order remain in place. That means that Anaconda’s negotiations over a conceptual agreement, which have already begun, are still held behind closed doors. Other future negotiations, such as the fate of Warm Springs Ponds, will also remain confidential until all the parties arrive at agreements.
Precisely how much Atlantic Richfield, the primary responsible party, already has spent on the Butte Hill cleanup has never been revealed, but a company vice president, Patricia Gallery, said the former oil giant has spent “several hundred million dollars.”
“We have watched the creek water quality improve significantly over time as that work is completed,” Gallery said at the noon meeting. “Where water quality used to exceed standards all of the time, it now meets standards most of the time.”
Despite the representatives’ efforts to present the discussion Wednesday in a positive light, many in the audience expressed worry that Restore Our Creek Coalition’s vision of a meandering creek running from Texas Avenue to George Street won’t be met.
The documents that detail the conceptual agreement do not address Atlantic Richfield building a meandering creek from Texas Avenue to George Street. Long-time Superfund watchdog Fritz Daily perceives this as a “failure” to the future of the community.
“The only weapon as a community is a legal remedy,” Daily said during the lunchtime meeting. “That’s our only remedy if we cannot establish a beautiful, meandering creek flowing in town."
Restore Our Creek Coalition member Evan Barrett asked if the proposed basins that would collect storm water along George Street would preclude a meandering creek from Texas Avenue to George Street.
Jon Sesso, Butte-Silver Bow Superfund coordinator, said the basins would take up 25 percent to 35 percent of the areas along George Street that are currently tailings waste.
EPA told The Montana Standard after the noon meeting that the proposed agreement “can leave the surface (in the corridor from Texas Avenue to George Street) in a manner that is not inconsistent” with the community’s vision.
“We’re not trying to ignore the community,” said Martin Hestmark, EPA assistant Region 8 administrator to the Standard.
Benevento echoed Hestmark.
“We wouldn’t do anything that will defeat the purpose of Restore Our Creek Coalition’s plan,” Benevento said.
The evening meeting, also at Montana Tech Library Auditorium, was more subdued, with roughly 35 people in the audience. The lunchtime meeting had closer to 100 people present.
Dr. Anna Chacko, who works with disability patients, said she's been talking to women since early April and is finding "a lot" of women with polycystic ovarian disease. She said, "copper could be determined to be a cause."
"We're remediating a lot of things, how the water flows, but what about the issue of disease?" She asked. "This is an ongoing issue that is not going away by containing water."
Chacko said the disease has an "inheritance pattern." She also said that if EPA orders a study to be performed here, "Butte and Anaconda could become the richest information source on a really dreadful scourge."
Benevento encouraged Chacko to reach out to the state health department. EPA is at the beginning stages of a health study in Butte. That study is due to be complete some time next year.
Benevento said the conceptual agreement has "four corners:" There is the potential for a waiver of Montana state water quality standards for zinc and copper in the portion of Silver Bow Creek that runs through town; the removal of tailings waste; basins and ponds to control storm water; and cleanup of unreclaimed and insufficiently reclaimed sites on the Butte Hill.
Several at the lunchtime meeting asked if the parties had taken a look at rerouting storm water to the Berkeley Pit, where billions of gallons of ground water will have to be pumped and treated in perpetuity. A pilot project to begin that pumping is scheduled to begin late this year or early next year.
Greene said that EPA did consider rerouting storm water to the pit.
“We’d still have to have a basin to contain storm water to manage it and get it to the pit,” Greene said.
Loren Burmeister, liability business manager for Atlantic Richfield, said the company did not come up with a dollar figure for how much it would cost to reroute the storm water to the pit.
“What we determined, we couldn’t get enough of the storm water to the pit to impact water quality (in the creek),” Burmeister said.
The day began with all the representatives appearing before the Butte-Silver Bow Council of Commissioners at the Butte Courthouse. Dave Palmer, the county's chief executive, said the conceptual agreement is good for the resource, protects the taxpayer and supports future land use that will be beneficial to the public.
Commissioner Cindy Perdue-Dolan asked EPA if taxpayers would be on the hook financially if BP, the parent company of Atlantic Richfield, goes bankrupt in the future.
"There are financial assurances ... It's bonded so if something were to happen, the financial assurance would make sure that doesn't go to the taxpayer," Hestmark said.