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Next steps on Butte Hill consent decree outlined

Next steps on Butte Hill consent decree outlined

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Silver Bow Creek

Silver Bow Creek is shown at the confluence with Blacktail Creek in this 2018 file photo. 

The Environmental Protection Agency released a statement Thursday outlining the next steps on the Superfund consent decree for the Butte Hill. This statement release is a response to the recent murkiness over when, exactly, the public would be allowed to view the document.

The consent decree is a legal text that will make plain Atlantic Richfield Company’s remaining responsibilities to clean up areas that include Uptown, Walkerville, a portion of the Flat, parts of Blacktail and Silver Bow creeks, South Montana Street to Big Butte and the upper and lower west sides of town.

At what date, exactly, the public will have access to the consent decree is still unknown. But once the other players have completed their review, then Butte-Silver Bow County Commissioners — and therefore the public — will have their turn.

The statement says the federal government’s review process, which will come first, could take “from four to five weeks, but it could be shorter or longer.” State agencies, Gov. Steve Bullock’s office, Attorney General Tim Fox’s office and Atlantic Richfield Company’s management also have to “undertake a similar review process,” the release states.

But once the document does come out, the county will then hold meetings to answer questions and explain the contents. Officials from the EPA, the state and Atlantic Richfield will also be available at the meetings to answer questions.

That doesn’t mean the public will be allowed to comment to the agencies, however. Even with the public process at the county level, the document will not be open for a formal public comment period to federal or state agencies until it goes to U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon, EPA says.

County commissioners and county employees are “likely to accept public comment” before then, says the release.

Sister Mary Jo McDonald, a long-time community activist, asked why the consent decree negotiators wouldn't allow for a more formal public comment process before the document is lodged with the court.

“Why be afraid to let the public have a hearing?” McDonald asked rhetorically. “We’re all in this together.”

If the county commissioners authorize Dave Palmer, B-SB chief executive, to sign the document on behalf of the city-county’s citizens, then the document will go to Haddon. At that point, there will be a formal public comment period in which the public can comment on the consent decree to the federal and state agencies.

But some say that is too late.

“Once it’s lodged with the court, it’s a no-brainer they’re not going to listen to anything we have to say anyway,” McDonald said.

Both the federal government and the state will consider the public’s comments and provide a response to those comments, the EPA statement says. Either the federal or the state agencies can withdraw approval.

Northey Tretheway, spokesperson for Restore Our Creek Coalition, said his group is happy to see the document moving forward after the 13-year-long wait.

“But let’s make sure we’re not tripping over ourselves and we miss some issues,” he said.

Given how long this part of the process is now taking, the coalition no longer worries that the feasibility study to test whether a fully restored Silver Bow Creek can be built in the middle of town will be complete before the consent decree goes to final signature. That study should be finished next month.

What happens if, during the county’s process, the commissioners choose not to authorize Palmer to sign on behalf of Butte-Silver Bow citizens?

The parties could try to renegotiate, the release states. But, if the current consent decree is rejected, there is no guarantee a new decree would be reached.

If the county does not sign the consent decree, EPA will order Atlantic Richfield to perform the remaining cleanup work. But that work would be different from what the parties have negotiated at the table.

The consent decree is science-based and would protect human health and the environment in a sustainable way, the release says.

“If the (consent decree) proposal is approved, it will provide economic, social and environmental benefits for the community for years into the future,” the release states.

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Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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