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Clark Fork River

An aerial photo of the Clark Fork River near Deer Lodge taken in July 2016. The state is proposing to transfer another $18.5 million from various restoration accounts to pay to finish the Parrot tailings cleanup behind the Butte Civic Center. Some of those restoration dollars could be spent on the Clark Fork instead. The cleanup on the Clark Fork River isn't expected to be complete for another two decades.

If the state uses additional restoration dollars — in the amount of $18.5 million — to finish the Parrot waste cleanup behind the Butte Civic Center, the state will be robbing from the future, said more than one at Monday’s contentious Natural Resource Damage Council meeting.

The NRD, which oversees the restoration settlement dollars from Atlantic Richfield Company, is proposing to transfer additional restoration money from various pots to finish the cleanup of the Parrot waste long buried behind the Butte Civic Center. Both the Butte Natural Resource Damage Council and the Upper Clark Fork River Basin (UCFRB) Advisory Council met Monday afternoon in an unusual joint meeting at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives to discuss the proposal.

Restoration money is intended to make up for the lost resources to the state, not to be used for cleanup work to remove mine and smelter waste from more than 100 years of mining and smelting waste. But, if this proposal is agreed to by Gov. Steve Bullock, currently a presidential candidate in the crowded Democratic primary race, the Parrot removal will be paid for entirely with restoration dollars.

The NRD expects to have half of the estimated $37 million it needs — the $18.5 million it is currently seeking — to be reimbursed by the “Butte trust,” money Atlantic Richfield will pay the state to cleanup up Blacktail Creek. (See information box on how to comment on the proposal.)

The NRD is offering to pull $4.7 million from the Upper Clark Fork Advisory Council restoration pot; an additional $8 million from a reserve bank account the Upper Clark Fork Advisory Council set aside; and $5.8 million from the Butte Natural Damage Council’s restoration dollars.

Harley Harris, NRD attorney, said the work needs to continue. The NRD is in the midst of the Parrot cleanup. Phase one is complete and, while the state waits on the county for phase two, a big hole sits off Civic Center Road. 

Harris said the state wants to protect Silver Bow and Blacktail creeks from the more than 100-year-old mine and smelting waste. He said Bullock does not want to wait until the consent decree gets signed, which will lay out the rest of the cleanup for the Butte Hill. The Environmental Protection Agency has asked for an extension on that. (See related story on this page.)

Harris said that, in addition, the state has an agreement with Montana Resources, which has been accepting the waste the state is excavating. That agreement lasts until 2022, Harris said. But Mark Thompson, MR vice president for environmental affairs, said late Monday that MR would be amenable to renegotiating that contract and extending that deadline.

While everyone who spoke at the meeting seems to agree the Parrot needs to be removed, the decision to finish the job with restoration money did not appear to be taken as good news by virtually anyone there. The original $18.5 million to start the Parrot removal project also came from restoration money.

Elizabeth Erickson, BNRC chair, said after the meeting that spending $5.8 million from the BNRC’s restoration account will only leave the BNRC $1 million to put toward remaining restoration projects in Butte.

We won’t have much left,” Erickson said. “That’s the bulk of what we have.”

More than one person said that the new proposal to take an additional $18.5 million from restoration accounts is robbing from future generations. Many said they would prefer Bullock press the EPA to make Atlantic Richfield pay for it.

Maureen Connor, a member of the UCFAC, said the group that oversees how to spend millions of restoration money all along the Upper Clark Fork River basin, put its reserves aside for the future.

“It’s our hope those reserves build over time. Maybe our kids would be making decisions on projects over the future. It’s built on hope,” she said.

Connor isn’t the only one worried about restoration money that the UCFAC makes recommendations over.

Carl Hamming, Powell County planning director and floodplain coordinator, said Powell County is “still concerned" after sitting through the three-hour meeting with about 40 other members of the public.

But, he said he wants to confer with Powell County commissioners before commenting further.

John DeArment, Clark Fork Coalition science director, said the decision would put more pressure on his organization to raise funds for restoration projects it does along the Clark Fork River basin.

“It’s ultimately creating gaps in what we would like to see be a world-class restoration in the upper basin,” DeArment said after the meeting.

DeArment also pointed to the fact that the money Atlantic Richfield paid to the Department of Environmental Quality — a figure the DEQ agreed to — has not been enough for the state’s 44-mile cleanup work on the Clark Fork River.

“The state is already slow-walking that project over two decades from being underfunded on the remediation side,” DeArment said.

Casey Hackathorn, Trout Unlimited’s Upper Clark Fork program manager, said his nonprofit organization has spent $15 million it has raised through donations and grants on the entire basin over the last 20 years.

He said he looks at the problem from a “watershed perspective” not from the perspective of his organization. But, he said the move could impact Trout Unlimited’s restoration work in the long-term. TU has often partnered with the NRD on restoration projects.

Helen Joyce, another BNRC member, called it “insane” to kick off the Parrot removal in 2016 without all the funds. When the NRD announced it was moving forward in 2016, the agency couldn't answer questions as to where the rest of the money would come from.

Long-time activist Fritz Daily appeared even angrier than he sometimes comes across at public meetings discussing Superfund issues. After a long speech about what he considers the state's folly, he ended with a slightly threatening note.

“If you want to see me get fired up, I can really get fired up if you want,” he said.

Montana Tech Professor Robert Pal, who directs a lot of restoration work on the Butte Hill, said restoration is not “for a year or two.”

“It’s for my kid’s kid,” Pal said.   

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