It's 'a great day for EPA and a great day for Butte:' EPA releases draft consent decree for Butte Hill cleanup

It's 'a great day for EPA and a great day for Butte:' EPA releases draft consent decree for Butte Hill cleanup

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The EPA Wednesday released a draft consent decree for the Butte Hill cleanup, the culmination of “nearly four decades”’ of Superfund efforts, EPA Region 8 Administrator Greg Sopkin announced in Butte.

At a joint press conference with negotiating parties, including Butte-Silver Bow, The Atlantic Richfield Company and the state of Montana, Sopkin said it is “a great day for EPA and a great day for Butte.”

Indeed, the announcement came on a brilliant, sunny winter day in the Mining City.  Government officials of every stripe mingled with longtime Superfund activists and interested parties at the conference at an appropriate setting — the historic Hotel Finlen.

The day had the feeling of cleanup history being made, atop 150 years of mining history. Men mucked ore from the ground directly below the grand columns and crystal chandeliers in the room where officials gathered to celebrate a path forward.

Betsy Smidinger, EPA's Region 8 Superfund chief; Patrick Holmes, representing Gov. Steve Bullock; Patricia Gallery, vice president of Atlantic Richfield; Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer, and Superfund Coordinator Jon Sesso followed Sopkin to the podium.

"Throughout the consent decree negotiations, the parties have sought input from the community into their vision for Butte's future, and this input has been incorporated into the remedy and surrounding land use plan,” Gallery said.

The consent decree is the blueprint for the Superfund cleanup of the Butte Hill, setting out the work — in very specific detail — needed to get the city to the point of being delisted from Superfund. It includes some work that will need to be done "in perpetuity."

The decree must be signed by all parties — including Palmer, representing Butte-Silver Bow. In order to sign, Palmer needs the authorization of the Council of Commissioners.

Once the decree is signed by all parties, it is sent to U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon, who must approve it for it to take effect. Before he does so, there will be an official comment period. But Sesso and Butte-Silver Bow pressed for a separate public airing of the decree draft before the Council votes on it.

Gallery said if the consent decree get approved, “Atlantic Richfield commits to fund the design, the construction and the future operation and maintenance of all remedy components."

Atlantic Richfield has spent $1.6 billion since 1989 in Butte and the Clark Fork valley, Gallery said. That includes some $290 million in Butte proper. The consent decree obligates the company to spend another approximately $150 million on the Butte Hill.

Palmer said he was “honored to share the podium today” with representatives of the other parties, and thanked all for the hard work that led to the draft decree.

“Welcome to the beginning of Butte’s future in the post-Superfund era,” he said.

Sesso wielded a foot-thick white binder, a hard copy of the decree. “Here it is,” he said, “in all its splendor!"

“We’ve made great progress in the past couple of years in getting to the details” of the remedy and how progress will be monitored, Sesso said.

“We are anxious to share the details of our work,” he added, outlining extensive plans for public forums and conversations over the next few weeks.

“The public has waited a long time to see the details of this document," Sesso said. “We encourage you to take advantage and attend these meetings.”

Smidinger said the cleanup "will remove more contaminated tailings at the Northside and Diggings East tailings areas and along Silver Bow and Blacktail creeks; will remove more contaminated sediment from Silver Bow and Blacktail creeks; will capture and treat more contaminated storm water to keep that water out of the creeks; will cap and revegetate additional mine waste areas on the Butte Hill; and will capture and treat more contaminated groundwater." She said the decree "specifies how all that work will be implemented, monitored and evaluated to make sure the results of the work are protective of human health and the environment."

"We believe the proposal reflects an effective cleanup when considering the cumulative efforts across the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit," Holmes said, "including the Governor’s leadership to implement the Parrot Tailings removal project.

"The state envisions a significant leadership role in this proposal."

He said that "as part of the $20.5 million settlement proposed, the State will be leading efforts to undertake remedial actions in the Blacktail Creek corridor— offering the community a significant amenity."

Holmes said that "following completion of the work at Blacktail Creek, the State expects approximately half of the proceeds to be available for restoration and end land use needs — specifically repaying funds used to complete phase II of the Parrot Project — ultimately contributing about 1/3 of the overall project costs for the Parrot through this settlement."

The consent decree was posted online at the EPA web site, and also on Butte-Silver Bow's web site.

Reaction from those attending was generally positive, if cautious. A mountain of data and detail awaits those ready to delve into the nitty-gritty of the draft decree.

"It truly is a great day for Butte," said Stephanie Sorini, Chamber of Commerce executive director. "It's very encouraging."

“I feel relieved, and I truly feel it's a momentous day for the community of Butte,” said Josh Bryson, a project manager with Atlantic Richfield Company.  “First and foremost, it’ll protect the environment and human health. And beyond that, really, it’s a road map of opportunity for this community to move forward.”

"I'm pretty optimistic," said Dave Williams, president of the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee. He said CTEC, which is charged with interpreting EPA-speak into language the community can understand, would try to have a representative at each of the community meetings set to discuss the decree.

"It's so much better than what we've had before," said state Rep. Jim Keane, D-Butte. "We have more than $100 million of additional funds being put toward this. There are a lot of details to be worked out, and I know there will be issues, but we've come a very long way."

“This is big news for the folks of Butte-Silver Bow,” Sen. Steve Daines said Wednesday. “After nearly four decades, this agreement brings us one step closer to not only a solutions-driven cleanup, but also removing the stigma of the Superfund listing by 2024.  I will continue working with the community, local officials and all the responsible parties to make sure this cleanup is done right and maintained in perpetuity.”

“I would venture to say that we have done very well in representing the interests of our community throughout,” said Sesso. “The remedy under the law is to protect natural resources and human health, and that's what we concentrated on. Certain times, we couldn't go as far as people wanted us to, but we have gone to great lengths to get the remedy done right and give us an end land use that we can be proud of, particularly in the corridor. And I think that the proof is in the pudding.”

Sesso added that once people get a chance to read through the consent decree, “they'll be more confident that the local government has been represented very well in the negotiations."

"These documents secure the financial resources and the final set of actions needed to address 150 years of mining contamination and to protect human health and the environment," Sopkin said. "And they do so in a way that goes beyond Superfund cleanup requirements to meet  the community's desires."

For those who have worked to secure a commitment and funding for restoring Upper Silver Bow Creek from Texas Avenue to the confluence with Blacktail Creek, the announcement was mixed. The creek is not specifically included as a part of the work to be done under the decree, but a recent EPA-funded study showed that it is compatible with the work to be done under Superfund.

“The feasibility study only concluded that the remedy would not preclude future construction of a lined creek,” Bryson said. “The feasibility study also identified the many challenges that would need to be overcome prior to a lined creek as envisioned by Restore Our Creek Coalition.”

“We did try to do our absolute best to integrate the components into the end use plan that people were telling us about at public outreach sessions,” Bryson said. “That included trails and naturalized habitats, gathering spaces... and many other things that we look forward to sharing with the community here soon.”

Atlantic Richfield launched a website, ARMontana.com, Thursday evening to detail remediation and reclamation work plans within Butte Hill.

Holmes announced that the state would commit $1 million of some $20 million coming to the state under the terms of the agreement directly to the creek project, but the pricetag for the entire project has been pegged at around $12.4 million.

Evan Barrett, who has been active with the Restore Our Creek coalition, said, "It's an interesting opening salvo but leaves the financing of the creek with little but a kiss and a promise."

Sister Mary Jo McDonald said, "I think we were vaguely told things. We need to do our research now. I'm going to be reading and studying."

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