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The state will set aside money from Atlantic Richfield to partially fund a man-made creek through the center of Butte as part of the restoration plan for the Butte Hill, according to a letter signed by Atlantic Richfield, the Environmental Protection Agency and state and county officials and sent to the Restore Our Creek Coalition.

While the letter acknowledges that there are various issues to overcome — such as securing a water source and sorting out some potential infrastructure complications — before the lined creek can be built, the plan represents “a good-faith demonstration of our intent to facilitate Restore Our Creek Coalition’s vision in the future,” it says.

The coalition of community groups and individuals has been fighting for Atlantic Richfield to build a creek through the middle of town since 2015. Its spokesperson, Northey Tretheway, has long held that a “restored, meandering Silver Bow Creek” that starts at Texas Avenue and runs to the confluence with Blacktail Creek near South Montana Street is “what Butte needs and deserves.”

The letter says the money set aside will be a match, suggesting the funds won’t be enough by itself to build the creek the group desires. It also says Restore Our Creek Coalition or other “project proponents” will have to come up with funds to meet the goal.

Restore Our Creek Coalition received the letter Thursday.

Tretheway said Friday he could not comment on the letter other than to say the community group is “thankful” for receiving it.

“We want to take the time to review it before commenting on it,” Tretheway said.

Restore Our Creek would not share the letter with The Montana Standard, nor would the county share it. But the letter was sent to the Standard anonymously.

The letter says the state “intends to propose to set aside a certain amount of funding in an interest-bearing account that could be used as a match for construction of a future lined water feature, if land, water, access and infrastructure issues can be resolved.

“The source of the funding would be the proposed Butte settlement with Atlantic Richfield and other parties and the lined feature would come from settlement funds that are otherwise available for restoration.”

Katherine Hausrath, assistant attorney general for the Natural Resource Damage Program and the Department of Justice, said the “Butte settlement” is money that Atlantic Richfield will settle with the Department of Environmental Quality so DEQ can remediate Blacktail Creek from the Lexington Avenue Bridge to the confluence.

That settlement is contingent on the consent decree getting signed. EPA is currently in the process of trying to get the decree, specifically outlining the Butte Hill cleanup, signed by all parties by August 12.

Hausrath said “all the money is coming from the Butte settlement” and that no money will come from the Natural Resource Damage Program's current funds.

The Natural Resource Damage Program oversees $320 million from previous settlements with Atlantic Richfield made in decades past for restoration projects to compensate the state for the lost resource caused by more than 100 years of mining and smelting damage.

EPA has long held that replacing the channel that currently runs from Texas Avenue to the confluence and turning it into a fully functioning creek is not part of remedy and, therefore, the agency cannot force Atlantic Richfield to do that work.

Despite that, the coalition has held rallies, held community “visioning” workshops, and hired a landscape architect from New York City to produce a design for a creek and park that reflects the results from those workshops. The group has had representatives at nearly every public Superfund meeting and negotiated with the agencies and parties to see the coalition’s dream of a fully realized creek that children can fish and play in come true.

Restore Our Creek frequently refers to a petition with around 3,500 signatures the coalition gathered at least in part online a couple of years ago as proof that the group speaks for a large part of the town of Butte. When Doug Benevento, former EPA Region 8 administrator, came to Butte to say goodbye last month, he held a stakeholder meeting with mostly Restore Our Creek Coalition members and a few other local activists.

The letter says Atlantic Richfield, the county and the agencies have also responded to the coalition by proposing to modify the design of the cleanup to include “community amenities.”

One of those is an engineered channel near George Street that will have a seasonal flow of approximately one cubic foot per second (cfs) and “will have the appearance of a meandering, natural channel.”

The water will be recirculated. Supplemental water “may be added periodically” to make up for evaporation and “other losses” and will come from B-SB municipal water sources, according to the letter.

Close to the confluence at the Butte Visitor’s Center, Atlantic Richfield is also proposing to build another engineered channel with a seasonal flow of one cfs that will also have the appearance of a meandering, natural channel. It, too, will be recirculated and supplemental water may be added.

Dave Hutchins, a Montana Tech scientist and a member of Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, said one cfs is “a trickle in the context of a creek.”

For comparison, normal flow in Blacktail Creek can have an average range anywhere from 9 cfs in winter months to 35 cfs in warmer months. Currently, Blacktail Creek is flowing at 48 cfs.

Atlantic Richfield is also offering to build a pond. It will be lined to prevent infiltration from contaminated groundwater and will be separate from any basins to prevent fish from migrating into the creeks. The county would work with the state to supply both water and fish, the letter says.

Andrew Mutter, EPA Region 8 director of communication and public involvement, said the parties and agencies have not reached out to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks yet but recognize the necessity of doing so before the idea of putting fish into a pond becomes a reality.

There will also be trees and shrubs and “fishing amenities” built in the Blacktail Creek area — presumably from the Lexington Avenue Bridge to the confluence, though the letter doesn’t make that clear.

Karen Ogden, DEQ spokesperson, said the agency’s response is the same as the state’s response. Patrick Holmes, policy advisor for natural resources in the Governor’s Office, did not return a call.

Dave Palmer, B-SB County chief executive, and Mollie Maffei, B-SB deputy county attorney, did not respond to voicemails left Friday.

The letter says that during an October meeting last year, coalition members “voiced their request that nothing in (the Butte Hill) remedy preclude the construction of a new lined water feature within the upper Silver Bow Creek drainage in the future.”

By request, Atlantic Richfield developed a drawing to show the coalition that the lined water feature could be located east of Kaw Avenue along the southeast edge of Diggings East, the site of contamination that the company is going to excavate and turn into a park if the consent decree is signed.

When asked if the letter is the final response to Restore Our Creek, Mutter said in writing that “all parties are committed to continue to have open dialogue.” 

Michael Abendhoff, a Chicago-based spokesperson for Atlantic Richfield, said via email that residents, including Restore Our Creek Coalition, will be able to offer their responses to the letter during the 60-day public comment period provided by EPA for the proposed plan.

How much money the state will receive from Atlantic Richfield has not been made public yet, but Mutter said the state estimates the cost to clean Blacktail Creek will be “less than the amount of money Atlantic Richfield has tentatively agreed to pay the state.” That would leave money left over for the Upper Silver Bow Creek work.

Restore Our Creek Coalition would still have to get agreement and approval of a final design from the EPA and Atlantic Richfield, the letter says, to ensure the proposed watercourse does not interfere with the storm water remedy.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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