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Delay expected on the cleanup of Silver Bow Creek

Butte will not have a signed consent decree by the end of the year, say agency officials.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the process is taking longer than expected due to the continued public dialogue over what Butte will look like when the remedy is complete.

Earlier this year, Doug Benevento, EPA Region 8 administrator, said there would be a signed consent decree — the legal document that will set in stone the rest of the Butte Hill cleanup — by the end of 2018.

The timing is “fluid,” say EPA officials, but the agency is now banking on having the legal document signed, sealed and delivered and putting Atlantic Richfield Company to work by late spring or early summer of 2019.

EPA says the slowdown won’t affect the agency’s plan to begin delisting the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site from the National Priorities List in 2024.

EPA called the public input that has been going on all year “very valuable.” But it has also been time-consuming.

The public has been invited to a variety of workshops this past year to ask questions and discuss with officials some of the details of what will be in the Mining City’s future.

Just between early October and early November, Atlantic Richfield Company, the primary responsible party, enlarged the park planned for the middle of Butte from 90 acres to 120 acres.

Butte has been waiting for 35 years for EPA to decide the final remedy for Butte's historic 120 years of mining and smelting contamination of lead, arsenic, cadmium, copper and zinc. Atlantic Richfield began the cleanup decades ago, but there is still much work to do.

EPA released a draft of a technical impracticability evaluation last week. It details EPA’s tentative plan to waive state copper and zinc standards for both Blacktail and Silver Bow creeks through a portion of town. Federal water quality standards for zinc and copper would still apply.

Chris Wardell, EPA Region 8 community involvement coordinator, said by email that EPA still welcomes informal comments to that draft document, though there is no formal public comment period for it.

In addition, an upcoming document called the Proposed Plan will have a 60-day public comment period rather than a 30-day one. 

Dan Strizic, former interim commissioner for District 2, will likely have informal comments to make about waiving state standards at Wednesday’s Butte-Silver Council of Commissioners meeting. He is concerned, among other things, that “Butte is getting an inferior cleanup.”

One of Strizic's worries concerns EPA's proposal to waive state water quality standards for a section of the creeks from the Lexington Avenue bridge to the Interstate 15-90 overpass bridge. 

“If they’re going to start changing the standard (in the creeks), they are not cleaning it up,” Strizic said by phone Tuesday.

Strizic asked that Dave Palmer, Butte-Silver Bow's chief executive, speak during Wednesday's council meeting about how and when commissioners will get the information they need to “make the critical decisions” on the Butte Hill. Strizic has a variety of questions, including whether or not Butte taxpayers will be on the financial hook and what's happening with the relocation of the county's vehicle and maintenance shops.

Commissioners will vote on the consent decree before it becomes finalized. But according to EPA, the council will determine when to take that vote. 

Mollie Maffei, an attorney for Butte-Silver Bow, did not respond to a request for comment.

But Jon Sesso, B-SB Superfund coordinator, said that once he gets all the material for the consent decree, he and his team at the county will give it the eagle eye before preparing a presentation for commissioners.

It will be up to commissioners how the process at that level will proceed, Sesso said, but there could be one or more public hearing so “people can express their support or dissent based on how they see it,” before council takes a vote.

Sesso said the schedule of when this or that EPA document will be released is a bit fuzzy. 

“I can’t quite pinpoint a schedule,” he said.

EPA said in an emailed message to The Montana Standard Tuesday that the agency expects the consent decree signed by "late spring/early summer; we are working with Atlantic Richfield and the county to initiate sampling and other remedial design/planning work now so that actual cleanup work will occur in the next field season/summer in a seamless manner."

Anaconda will also have to wait to a signed consent decree until fall or early winter of 2019. EPA originally said the Smelter City would have a signed consent decree by the end of 2018 or early 2019. 

Joe Vranka, EPA Superfund chief for Montana, said last summer that Anaconda's documents were in a better place than Butte and that getting to a signed consent decree by the end of 2018 would not be a problem. 

But when asked why Anaconda is behind schedule, especially since Anaconda has not had public input meetings to slow down the process, Wardell insisted the Smelter City is not behind schedule.

"Anaconda is not behind schedule," he said via email. "It will be on a different schedule from Butte with different issues. Both the schedule and issues are currently being negotiated. We will have a public roll out process for Anaconda that will be similar to the one done for Butte which will be initiated soon. The schedule will have an anticipated date for a final CD (consent decree)," he said.

Atlantic Richfield did not respond to a request for comment.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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