The Environmental Protection Agency’s brand-new regional administrator for the Rocky Mountain states, Doug Benevento, wants a consent decree for the Butte Hill signed by early next year.
The consent decree is the legal document that would specify the cleanup, as well as the cost to the responsible parties. In the case of the Butte Hill, that includes the railroads, Atlantic Richfield Company and Butte-Silver Bow County.
The agencies and the responsible parties have been wrangling over the consent decree for the Butte Hill — which is only one section of the Silver Bow Creek/Butte Superfund complex — for 11 years.
Benevento met with both The Montana Standard and with a group of community leaders Wednesday to discuss Butte’s cleanup. He listened to an array of questions from community leaders on issues ranging from environmental justice to EPA's controversial stance on the Parrot tailings, mining and smelting waste buried behind the Butte Civic Center.
But getting the consent decree talks moving again — there have been just two negotiating sessions this year and none in the past six months — was part of the reason Benevento came to Montana within his first few weeks on the job.
Benevento said he'd heard he should come to Montana even before he took the job. President Donald Trump appointed Benevento in the beginning of October. Benevento replaces Shaun McGrath, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.
Benevento comes from the private sector — he most recently held a top position with Colorado’s energy company Xcel Energy — but he’s also worked in the public realm. Benevento led the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment prior to 2010.
Because of that, Benevento said he’s “been in Tom Livers’ shoes.” Livers is the director of Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which, at times, has had an adversarial relationship with EPA.
Benevento said hearing the complaints about Butte’s cleanup at Wednesday's meeting was, for him, “visceral,” and reminds him of “the Leadville days.” He was still in charge of Colorado’s environmental state agency during Leadville’s cleanup and he remembers well the stigma Superfund brought upon that old mining town.
“But now, I’m in the position to do something about it,” he said.
A mining town about two hours west of Denver, Leadville became a Superfund site about the same time as Butte. Leadville had the same cleanup issues although on a much smaller scale.
Benevento said that if a consensus can’t be reached on the consent decree over the Butte Hill, EPA can still take action by ordering Atlantic Richfield through a unilateral order to do more work.
Overall, the message community leaders gave to Benevento on Wednesday afternoon was, “we need your help.”
Citizens Environmental Technical Committee Vice President Bill McGregor pointed out that CTEC and Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice had applied for a grant to EPA to work on environmental justice issues in Butte, but were turned down earlier this year.
Benevento asked questions and took notes, but did not comment on the grant refusal.
Benevento was up front about saying that he “can’t make you happy on every issue.”
“I’ve been in public life long enough to know, it’s better to say it now than to have it come out on the back end,” he said.
Restore Our Creek Coalition spokesperson Northey Tretheway talked about the group’s vision of a large park to replace the controversial tailings that still reside in the Parrot corridor from the Butte Civic Center to the Chamber of Commerce on George Street.
“We’ve got to change the perception this is a polluted town,” Tretheway said. “We’re trying to overcome this thing on our back.”
Former Butte Chief Executive Don Peoples, Sr., told Benevento about the chant of “Dirty water, dirty water,” opposing teams reportedly call out to Butte students during games.
Peoples said Butte is not growing like other Montana cities and blamed Butte’s reputation “as a dirty water town” as the reason why.
McGregor, who has been involved as a volunteer on Superfund issues since the beginning, was “impressed” to see Benevento so early in his tenure as the top gun for Region 8. But, he added a caveat.
“Real leadership should go beyond enforcement,” McGregor said.
Benevento said he had debated with himself whether he should spend more time getting briefed by his staff and be “better prepared” before showing up in Butte.
“It’s intimidating not knowing the answer to every question,” Benevento said.
But he chose to come to Montana and visit Butte before getting briefed “to shape myself to ask the right questions of staff as I’m getting briefed.”
Although Benevento couldn’t comment on whether EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will visit Butte, Benevento intends to return himself soon.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines has said previously that Pruitt would visit the Berkeley Pit this fall.
While it’s not clear if Benevento will attend a rally co-sponsored by The Montana Standard and Restore Our Creek Coalition at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 14 at the Covellite Theatre, he is traveling back to Montana in two weeks.
When he returns, Benevento plans to hold a public meeting in Anaconda to discuss its Superfund cleanup. He met briefly with Anaconda Chief Executive Bill Everett on this trip.
Benevento arrived in Montana on Sunday evening. He called the four days he was in Montana “the most productive” he’s had in the 13 days he’s been on the job so far.
He met with Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock in Helena at the beginning of his trip. He said that while not all of his meeting was exclusively about Butte, about 80 percent of it was.
Bullock’s spokesperson Ronja Abel said via email that during the meeting Bullock emphasized “the importance of getting a resolution” on Butte.
After meeting with Benevento Wednesday, longtime Superfund watchdog Fritz Daily left in a good mood.
“This is the first one of these guys I’ve seen in 34 years that I thought might do some good,” Daily said.