Editor's note: This story was revised on September 18 to reflect the following information:
In a story on Page A1 of The Montana Standard on September 14, the position of a state Department of Environmental Quality scientist was mischaracterized.
David Bowers said at a September 12 public meeting that the dioxin portion of the Montana Pole and Treating Plant cleanup has been less effective than expected, but the overall cleanup at the site remains on schedule, according to a DEQ spokesperson.
Also, information about the lack of effectiveness of the dioxin cleanup was included in a 2011 five-year review and in a presentation to the Montana Pole Citizens Technical Advisory Committee in 2013, according to the DEQ. Many of those in attendance at the September 12 meeting, though, including professionals and people closely involved in the project, said they were unaware of the issue until last month.
Cleaning up dioxin at the Montana Pole and Treating Plant in Butte has not worked as well as expected, a state environmental scientist said at a public meeting Tuesday.
David Bowers, of the Department of Environmental Quality, told how the site became a 40-acre federal Superfund site riddled with dioxin, pentachlorophenol, or PCP, and other hazardous chemicals — and how DEQ has spent the last 21 years trying to clean those chemicals up.
It is a story that many in the audience know well — or so they thought.
But for the past 18 years, DEQ knew something that many at the meeting said they were unaware of until last month: that the effort to treat contaminated soil on the site was not sufficiently remediating the presence of highly toxic dioxin.
DEQ was aware that its efforts to rid the site’s soil of dioxin were not working when it offloaded and tested the first batch of treated soil in 1999.
While DEQ said that ineffectiveness was mentioned the 2011 five-year review and again in a presentation to a citizens' technical group in 2013, most of those at the meeting, including professionals with close contact with the project, were not aware of the cleanup deficiency until the agency released its latest five-year review, on Aug. 16 of this year.
Bowers said the delay in informing the public had to do with DEQ’s desire to await test results that would show exactly what the risks of dioxin were. After the risks were known, Bowers said, DEQ planned to deal with the dioxin. But those test results did not come back until 2012.
As a result, information about the failure to sufficiently remediate the dioxin was not widely shared until this August, when DEQ presented the fourth five-year report — and its findings about the continued presence of dioxin — to the Butte-Silver Bow Council of Commissioners.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first that aimed to discuss the new findings with the general public, and some in the room appeared bewildered by what Bowers was telling them.
After the meeting, Jon Sesso, the county’s planning director and Superfund coordinator, said, “I mean, what did we wait 20 years for, if it (the remediation process) was going to fail in the first place?”
Sesso, who has been involved in deciding how to clean up the site since the beginning, said the county has been under the impression since the beginning that the land would be remediated to a level that would be suitable for industrial or commercial use.
After the meeting, Sesso said the county set aside “$10,000 a year for 30 years to take care of the area, and then submitted a land-use plan that had commercial uses and industrial uses." Sesso also said the county was contemplating an industrial use for the site as recently as 2015.
Sesso expressed displeasure with DEQ’s failure to disclose more widely the problems with the agency’s approach to cleaning the contaminated soil on site, using the bioremediation process outlined in 1993 Record of Decision.
“We had, I think, a reasonable expectation that when they chose bioremediation technology as the treatment approach that it was gonna work,” Sesso said. “But it’s perplexing to me that apparently it was known that the technology choice was not operating.’’
Bowers, however, defended DEQ’s efforts.
While acknowledging that the work to remediate dioxin has not been successful, Bowers pointed out that the efforts to mitigate PCP have worked.
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“So from that perspective, it has been a success,” he said.
He also noted that contamination in the groundwater was meeting acceptable levels until a recent change in DEQ standards that rendered the water from the Montana Pole site unsafe.
“I can tell you from a contaminant perspective what it looked like (in the 1980s),” Bowers said. “It’s got a long ways to go, but I don’t think it’s an awful mess anymore.”
While defending DEQ’s work, Bowers acknowledged that the continued presence of dioxins in the soil represented a shortcoming of the cleanup, as intended by the 1993 Record of Decision, and that it meant plans for the site would have to change.
“With the release of the dioxin report,” Bowers said, “we had to reevaluate what we’re doing.”
As a result of that reevaluation, DEQ now plans to engineer a cap that will contain the waste onsite. This cap will essentially bury the dioxin-contaminated soil below layers of gravel, clean soil, a membrane, a grading layer and an intermediate cover layer. Below the contaminated waste soil will lie the site’s groundwater, which will continue to be treated at the wastewater treatment plant on the north side of the site.
Once the cap is in place, the site will be cleaned to the recreational level, meaning it could be used only for playing fields, a park or similar purposes.
But that plan concerned Sesso and others attending Tuesday’s meeting, including John Ray, who expressed alarm at DEQ’s intention to cap the dioxin on site rather than remove it from the property and to clean the property only to a recreation level. Ray is with the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee.
Arguing that the community has been sold a “bill of goods,” Ray said, “When all is said and done, 30 years of essentially failure, with the fallback position of cap it and we can’t use it. … I just don’t know how anyone could present this and say this is a satisfactory clean-up effort.”
Similar concerns led Sesso to wonder aloud about whether there was time for DEQ to change course and do more remediation work that would make the site suitable for industrial rather than just recreational use.
But Bowers expressed significant doubts about the likelihood of doing so, in large part due to monetary constraints.
The government’s settlement with the parties responsible for the site’s contamination granted $35 million for cleanup. Currently, about $29 million of that money remains for a project expected to drag out for another 30 years — and that means there is not enough money on hand to do more than what DEQ already has planned for the site.
While Butte-Silver Bow could invest more in the site after DEQ is done remediating it to a level suitable for recreational use, Sesso acknowledged that was impracticable, calling it a “non-starter for our community.”
“I mean, we’re not going to take this land and then take on a liability to use it for a purpose we thought we were going to have in the first place,” Sesso said.
Seeking some way to remediate the Montana Pole site so it might serve some “beneficial use that the community could actually use,” Sesso asked Bowers whether DEQ was considering other alternatives that would take the land from “an open-space-concentration level to an industrial level.”
Bowers said the DEQ is working on a report called an Explanation of Significant Difference that will serve as “the starting point for that discussion.”
That report will detail the changes to the Record of Decision, including revisions to the cleanup levels and a description of how it will alter its approach going forward. Bowers indicated that DEQ expects this report to be released this fall.
While Bowers strenuously defended DEQ’s efforts and plans, he acknowledged the validity of Sesso’s, Ray’s and others’ concerns.
“You should always be concerned about the management of waste in your backyard,” Bowers said. “It would be ridiculous not to.”