Contaminated groundwater is upwelling into Silver Bow and Blacktail Creeks, according to a recent Environmental Protection Agency report.
Citizen Technical Environmental Committee member Joe Griffin gave a presentation about the report, which was released in December, at a Butte Natural Resource Damage Council meeting at the Butte Public Archives Thursday evening.
EPA Project Manager Nikia Greene told The Montana Standard after the meeting that Griffin gave the presentation about the heavy metals showing up in the creek — from Lexington Avenue overpass to the Slag Wall Canyon area — because CTEC is funded by EPA to disseminate information about Butte's Superfund site to the public.
The problem is mostly copper, not the other metals of concern, Greene told the Standard after the meeting. The metal most prevalent in Butte is exceeding standards in the creeks intermittently, when it's flowing normally, he said.
The worst problem areas are in Blacktail Creek around the visitors center on George Street and in Silver Bow Creek in the Slag Wall Canyon area.
The discussion about the report was part of a larger presentation the Natural Resource Damage Council gave to the BNRC over where the state is on the Parrot tailings removal, a project that has been besieged by various problems and delayed by nearly two years.
The state also reported on 25 new wells they have drilled along the Parrot corridor — Texas Avenue to George Street.
NRD spokesperson Jim Ford said the state agency put in the additional wells to keep an eye on the slotted pipe that lies 5 feet below the surface in the Parrot corridor.
Because that pipe is part of the Butte Hill Superfund cleanup, if the state alters it in any way while removing the Parrot waste, the state could become liable for it under Superfund law.
That concern warranted NRD drilling the new wells, Ford said.
The state intends to begin removing the Parrot waste in May or June of this year, according to Ford. NRD said last fall the agency expected to get going as soon as construction season started this year, which presumably meant March. But the state hit snags in reaching agreements with the county, Montana Resources, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway last year. Agreements with all three entities were needed to initiate the project.
The last of those roadblocks rolled away earlier this week when the county signed the access agreement allowing NRD to start moving dirt. MR and BNSF worked out their agreement issues with the state last month.
Though Greene and Department of Environmental Quality Project Manager Darryl Reed both attended the BNRC meeting, neither spoke before the group.
Greene told the Standard after the meeting the new pollution information doesn't mean EPA will order Atlantic Richfield Company to remove the controversial Parrot tailings. The state has claimed since the mid-2000s the Parrot waste needs to come out because the contamination would impact Silver Bow Creek.
"It (the new information) is a line of evidence to help us determine components of the remaining remedial elements," Greene told the Standard. "The Parrot is to be removed under restoration, and EPA supports that."
Removing the Parrot under "restoration" means the state is spending money it received through a settlement with Atlantic Richfield Company about 10 years ago for things such as revegetating stream banks but is instead, in part, using it to remove toxic waste.
One aspect of the meeting that was unclear was the money. The project, expected to cost about $31 million, has an estimated shortfall of $14 million. The state has around $17 million to put toward the project, according to the state's most recent reporting on the financial side of the project. The state gave that report last fall.
Many critics in Butte hope that some agreement about funding for the Parrot removal may have been reached within the "agreement in principle" on the consent decree for the Butte Hill cleanup that was arrived at last month. But the terms of that agreement are still subject to a federal-court gag order.
NRD Director Harley Harris told The Montana Standard outside of the meeting that he could not speak about the financial gap because of the confidentiality provision.
While the state and EPA were going to "bring sunshine" to that agreement as quickly as possible, no petition has yet been brought to U.S. Judge Sam Haddon to do so.
Griffin, during his presentation, also said he believes the slotted pipe that captures contaminated groundwater along the Parrot corridor is slowly becoming less effective due to iron buildup.
After the meeting, he clarified and said the pipe "loses efficiency" between clean-outs.
That loss in efficiency, in turn, may be sending "pulses of zinc and copper toward the creek," Griffin said. However, that doesn't mean the "pulses" are causing zinc to exceed standards, he said after the meeting.
Greene told the Standard the pipe does suffer from buildup but that it is removed during the periodic clean-out.
"I would have to look at the data to say I agree or disagree (with Griffin's theory)," Greene said. "We perform maintenance on the sub drain, and it rebounds back to its normal operating."
Greene said that while the report doesn't offer up solutions to the upwelling of contaminated groundwater reaching the creek, it will "help us make those decisions."
He said that could mean removing tailings waste or contaminated soil.
"We need to do further removals and groundwater control," he said.
Griffin stated that CTEC "largely agreed with" EPA's report except for a statement that reportedly says "the weight of evidence" leads EPA to believe near stream sources, not distant sources, are the cause of the metals now reaching Blacktail and Silver Bow Creeks. That, in Griffin's opinion, means the Parrot waste, since it is around a mile from the creek.
But Greene told the Standard "the report does not rule out a source from a long distance."
"A distant source, we do not rule that out. But we assume, and what makes sense, is that our assumption in the report is the source is local," Greene said.