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Judge OKs Butte Hill consent decree
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Judge OKs Butte Hill consent decree

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"Here it is in all its splendor!"

Superfund Coordinator Jon Sesso cradles a giant binder full of the draft consent decree for the Butte Hill cleanup in this file photo taken Feb. 13 of this year, the day the decree was released to the public.

With few words and a stroke of his pen, U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon on Wednesday approved the consent decree for the Butte Hill, a blueprint for a $150 million cleanup of some of the most profoundly polluted ground in Montana.

The judicial approval, which was expected, is the culmination of decades of negotiations between Atlantic Richfield, heir to the Anaconda Mining Company's environmental liabilities in Butte and Anaconda, and the Environmental Protection Agency, Butte-Silver Bow and the state of Montana.

The area covered by the consent decree has been profoundly polluted for more than 120 years. In 1893, the water of Silver Bow Creek was adjudged too polluted to be used for the city supply.

"The Court has considered the proposed Consent Decree and the attached Record of Decision in its review and has determined that the proposed decree is fair, adequate, reasonable and comports with the purposes" of federal Superfund law, Haddon wrote. "Defendants are responsible for the majority of the costs of the remediation, ensuring that remediation work will result in conditions that are protective of human health and the environment. The decree comports with the goals" of Superfund by "minimizing costs to the shareholders, facilitating a resolution, and ensuring a speedier cleanup of the relevant sites."

"Wow," Butte-Silver Bow Superfund Coordinator Jon Sesso said Wednesday, reached in Glacier National Park where he was vacationing. "That's great. It's been a long time coming."

"It's an important milestone in too long of a process," he said. "Now, we have a lot of work to do.

"These 10 work plans (specified in the decree), including Phase 2 of the Parrot tailings removal, will make a substantive and significant difference in the quality of this remedy," he added. "Judge Haddon's action is very much in the public interest, and I'm glad we can get on to the work."

He added that this "sets forth commitments in terms of the work, and in terms of the financial assurances, which mean the citizens of Butte-Silver Bow will never be left holding the bag for this cleanup."

Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday, “I’m pleased that Judge Haddon has affirmed the hard work of the negotiating parties to achieve this consent decree, allowing for us all to focus on our next steps to work with the community to advance our shared cleanup and restoration goals.

"I want to particularly acknowledge the leadership of the city and county of Butte Silver Bow and congratulate all of the citizens of Butte on this hard-won accomplishment. While the Judge’s decision marks the culmination of years of hard work and the tireless efforts of many, it also begins a new chapter where the state will continue to work with local and federal officials and community members to help deliver durable results for Butte.” 

“After decades of Superfund cleanup stagnation and languishing on the National Priorities List, today’s approval of the Consent Decree marks a new day for Butte Silver-Bow,” said Sen. Steve Daines.

“The hard work of remediation will continue in earnest as the signed Consent Decree will protect public health and hold the responsible parties truly accountable.  Butte is now ready to spark their engines for true economic growth.”

Douglas Benevento, Acting Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and formerly the agency's Region 8 Administrator, said Wednesday, "The credit for this accomplishment needs to go to the local, state and federal leadership that pushed EPA so hard to resolve this and other issues in Montana, and to the career staff at EPA who were creative and eager to bring this to closure.

"But it's the citizens of Butte that really made this happen. They care about their community and were going to fight for it until they received the cleanup they deserved. Well done, Butte!"

Benevento said he and other EPA officials will be visiting Butte in the next few weeks to mark the occasion of the CD's completion.

Also, he added, "We have to get to work on Westside Soils" — another unit within the Superfund complex that needs a cleanup plan.

An Atlantic Richfield spokesperson said, "Atlantic Richfield is happy to hear of the court's approval of the Butte consent decree and all that it means for Butte. With this important step now complete, Atlantic Richfield looks forward to advancing the projects as outlined in consent decree."

Northey Tretheway, spokesperson for the Restore Our Creek Coalition, said Wednesday, "Judge Haddon's approval of the Consent Decree ... and the expected (Council) passage of the Memorandum of Understanding between BSB and The State of Montana help Butte's forward decision-making.  Butte has dealt with the uncertainty over Superfund for far too long, and although many in our community believe the CD doesn't go far enough, the CD and critically important MOU leading to a restored Silver Bow Creek, are two milestones that remove some of that uncertainty and allow our community an opportunity to plan for our future and, as best we can, eventually put Superfund behind us."

Indeed, Butte-Silver Bow commissioners approved the MOU without debate Wednesday night. It says the county and state will pursue planning, design, engineering, construction and maintenance of projects to improve the upper corridors of Silver Bow and Blacktail creeks.

Proponents of a restored Silver Bow Creek through the middle of Butte criticized the consent decree for making no real commitments, financially or otherwise, to that effort. But the MOU solidifies the state’s pledge to spend at least $1 million on the creek and backers say it could be a gateway to further action.

Longtime community activist and former legislator Fritz Daily was much less sanguine about Wednesday's developments.

"I see this as driving the final nail in the economic-recovery coffin of our great community," Daily said.  "I see it as another 'dark day' ... similar to the closing of the smelter, the shutting off of the underground mine pumps and the closing of the Berkeley Pit and the Butte Mines.

"Superfund, designed to help communities going through these troubling times, has failed to provide the necessary responsible cleanup as guaranteed in state and federal law and the Montana Constitution," he said. "I believe that Atlantic Richfield/British Petroleum has been given a 'get out of jail free' card in the consent decree by the local government, the state of Montana and the EPA."

Sister Mary Jo McDonald, a longtime proponent of a thorough cleanup and restored upper Silver Bow Creek, said, "I feel that the comments that were made on the consent decree were probably not addressed, and people spent a lot of time writing up their comments and asking Judge Haddon to look at them."

She said, "I feel some areas have not been attended to, particularly the first or last mile, however you want to look at it, from Texas Avenue to Casey Street. Supposedly, that was remediated by Atlantic Richfield but it didn't work. It's not aesthetically pleasing and it has not been attended to properly. This isn't someplace out in the country. This is the heart of our city, the corridor through its center."

"We deserve better," McDonald said. "I am going to keep pushing. I am willing to work with whoever's going to help. If that's Atlantic Richfield, great. But I'm not stopping until we get these issues taken care of."

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