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Greg Sopkin

EPA Regional Administrator Greg Sopkin makes a point as he discusses Butte's Superfund cleanup with stakeholders at a meeting at Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives on Tuesday.

Greg Sopkin, the new Environmental Protection Agency Region 8 administrator, made his first visit to Butte and Anaconda Tuesday.

Sopkin, 54, pointed out that his first day on the job replacing former EPA Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento was May 1 and that he arrived within six weeks of taking Benevento’s shoes.

He promised more of what residents came to expect from Benevento.

Sopkin said the EPA still intends to get to signature on a consent decree, which will finalize the Mining City’s cleanup, on August 12. He also said the EPA can begin to delist Butte from the National Priorities List in 2024 and will begin to delist Anaconda starting in 2025, which are promises Benevento made early in his tenure.

Sopkin said the delisting deadlines are still doable, even though Benevento established the time frame when he said Butte and Anaconda would have consent decrees signed by the end of 2018.

Anaconda is supposed to get to a consent decree before the end of this year but, unlike Butte, the Smelter City does not have a target date yet for signature.

That time frame means Atlantic Richfield Company will have 4 to 5 years to finish a considerable amount of work. The cleanup will likely include building the proposed 120-acre park through the middle of Butte, plus the remediation necessary in Anaconda, which includes thousands of acres.

And, though unrelated to Anaconda or the Butte Hill cleanup plans, Atlantic Richfield is also proposing to build a new water treatment plant on the eastern edge of town to pump and treat Berkeley Pit water at a faster rate than previously planned over the next few years.

The stakeholder meeting in Butte, where Sopkin made his first appearance as the region's chief decision maker, involved county, state and Atlantic Richfield representatives, all of whom sat silently in the back at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives conference room. The citizens at the table with Sopkin and other EPA officials were members of the local activist group Restore Our Creek Coalition and the volunteer group Citizens Environmental Technical Committee (CTEC), which is charged with translating Superfund for the average citizen.

Restore Our Creek Coalition’s main concern at this stage is the $50,000 grant the group is asking the EPA to provide to pay for a feasibility study. Restore Our Creek Coalition says it wants such a study done to prove a creek can be built in the stretch from Texas Avenue to the confluence of Silver Bow and Blacktail creeks.

Nikia Greene, EPA project manager for the Butte Hill, said with the right amount of money, a creek would be possible.

“We don’t need proof,” Greene said of EPA. “If you’ve got a lot of money and you can buy property, you can put in a creek.”

Greene was referring to private landowners who own land along Casey and George streets. Some of the private property issues are one of the things the EPA cites as a current impediment to putting in a fully lined but meandering, free-flowing creek.

Sopkin said the EPA was looking into getting a grant to Restore Our Creek for a $50,000 feasibility study, but still doesn’t have an answer yet.

“The EPA is a federal agency as I found out and there are rules and regulations. Sometimes things move slower than I’d like. But it’s a very high priority for me to figure out a way to do this,” Sopkin said.

Joe Vranka, Montana EPA Superfund chief, said the EPA is hoping to get funding for the feasibility study in time for the coalition to comment on the consent decree after it’s already been lodged with District Court Judge Sam Haddon. That would likely be in the fall, he said. 

Northey Tretheway, the coalition’s spokesperson, said that was too late. The coalition wants the money before the consent decree is signed, because after that happens, Tretheway said, the coalition will lose any leverage it has.

But Greene said the design phase is when comments initiated by a feasibility study would be most helpful and that won't happen until after the consent decree goes to Haddon. 

Long-time Butte activist Mary Kay Craig brought up environmental justice, a concern she and Montana Tech professor John Ray frequently say the EPA does not do enough on.

Craig said that previously, the EPA said it would force landlords to allow lead cleanup in homes for renters. So far, there is no enforcement of lead cleanup in a renter's home or yard. 

If a property is sampled and it comes back "hot," meaning it is over the standard the EPA set for Butte of 1,200 parts per million of lead, the homeowner has the choice of declining the work. Homeowners can also refuse to allow sampling on the Butte Hill. 

Renters tend to be low-income, Craig pointed out.

"The Residential Metals Abatement Program (RMAP) is an excellent program but that is one big horrible flaw," Craig said. "We've been waiting 24 years for it to be addressed."

Sopkin called addressing environmental justice a "high priority."

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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