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Silver Bow Creek

Upper Silver Bow Creek is seen in this file photo from 2014.

At a cost of $9 million, Butte’s most hotly debated buried mine waste, the Parrot tailings, is one step closer to being long gone.

The state sent out a bid package Friday. Contractors have 35 days to submit for the project. The state anticipates a contractor getting down to work by late spring, according to state press secretary Marissa Perry.

State budget director Dan Villa said the first phase will cost about $9 million. The state doesn’t have a final cost estimate on the entire project because how much money the state will need to build the county’s vehicle and maintenance shops on its new Beef Trail Road location is still being worked out, Villa said.

But last fall Natural Resource Damage Council director Harley Harris estimated the cost for the entire project at around $31 million. The state has in the neighborhood of $17 million in total for the project, according to Harris last fall.

Villa said he could not comment on the projected financial gap. Harris was not available for comment.

Despite the major construction project coming to the Flat, Civic Center Road will remain open this summer, Villa said. 

Though questions remain, the state's taking a clear step forward means a long-awaited victory for Gov. Steve Bullock, who said shovels should start moving dirt as long ago as 2015.

Butte has been waiting for too long to get this cleanup done and it’s finally going to happen,” Bullock said through a news release. It’s time to move dirt and put folks to work.

The delay was caused by a host of obstacles. A debate over where to relocate the county’s vehicle and maintenance shops, which sit directly behind the Civic Center, took close to a year.

After considerable study, analysis and contention, Butte-Silver Bow County Commissioners voted around a year ago to move the county shops across town to land off Beef Trail Road. 

The state also struggled with where to relocate the waste and getting various agreements in place over how to move it, and over the county shops relocation. Those issues appeared to absorb the better part of another year.

Not until the Environmental Protection Agency orchestrated the agreement in principle for the Butte Hill cleanup in late January did all of the state’s obstacles fall away.

Whether the Parrot tailings’ removal was part of the negotiated deal EPA, the state, the county and the responsible parties, primarily Atlantic Richfield Company, struck, is still unclear. EPA has not yet petitioned U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon yet to bring “sunshine” to that agreement. EPA said two months ago it would ask Haddon to loosen the gag order that shrouds the deal in secrecy as soon as it could.

The more than 100-year-old mine and smelter waste buried 50 feet deep behind the Butte Civic Center has been at the center of controversy for a long time. Even while the secrecy around some aspects of the removal appears to suggest the buried waste may be part of the Butte Hill cleanup EPA negotiated two months ago, EPA continues to maintain the waste does not need to go.

The state says the waste, left in place, will eventually contaminate Silver Bow Creek and harm the cleanup work already done downstream. The fact that metals are upwelling into the creek and have been found in the stream bank and bed during recent studies in the last few years suggests the state is correct.

But EPA's 10-year-long dispute with the state is more than just a disagreement between scientists over how to interpret data. The argument ultimately is over money. Because EPA says the Parrot tailings don't require elimination, that a slotted pipe lying horizontally five feet deep is capturing all of the contamination, the state took the lead and is paying for the removal primarily with money it got through a settlement with Atlantic Richfield for things such as revegetating stream banks.

Long-time Superfund watchdog Fritz Daily said he would still prefer to see the project led by EPA, which would mean Atlantic Richfield would be on the hook for all of the funds.

“I still believe EPA should be responsible for removing the Parrot tailings, I still believe that,” Daily said by phone Wednesday. “But moving forward, it is a good thing for the community.”

But others expressed nothing but unequivocal approval over the news. 

Butte-Silver Bow County Chief Executive Dave Palmer said, through a news release, “I’m pleased this project is finally moving forward. This has been a long time coming for Butte and this is a good beginning to many millions of dollars in job creation building our restoration economy.”

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox also weighed in on this next step toward the state’s goal line.

“The issuance of the phase 1 bid package in the Parrot Tailings Waste Removal Project is a significant milestone to address the contamination present in Silver Bow and Black Tail Creeks,” Fox said. “Removal of these mine wastes is the best permanent solution for resolving groundwater contamination and protecting these creeks for the future.”

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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