Top brass from the Environmental Protection Agency are paying Butte and Anaconda a visit next week.
Not only is EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento making a second appearance in Anaconda Tuesday — and a third visit to Butte within the first six months of his tenure — but EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s senior adviser, Albert “Kell” Kelly, is flying in from Washington, D.C.
An official with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is also traveling in from ATSDR’s headquarters in Atlanta for the public meeting EPA is holding in Anaconda, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Old Works Golf Course Clubhouse, 1205 Pizzini Way.
Benevento and Kelly will hold a second meeting from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. Wednesday at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, 17 W. Quartz Street. Local groups such as Restore Our Creek Coalition and Citizens Technical Environmental Committee are expected to be there, as well as county officials.
Benevento and Kelly will hold private meetings with county officials for both Anaconda-Deer Lodge County and Butte-Silver Bow County during the two-day visit, as well.
Kelly wants to “listen” to what officials and the public have to say about the 35-year-long cleanup both Butte and Anaconda have undergone, EPA Montana Superfund Chief Joe Vranka said by phone Tuesday.
Andrew Mutter, EPA Region 8 director of communications and public involvement, said Kelly’s presence “shows the importance of the sites and the spirit of cooperative federalism.”
“He’s very genuine and he’s going to listen,” Mutter said from his Denver office Tuesday. “He wants to hear what the community wants to say.”
If anybody has the ear of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, it’s Kelly, who is an old personal friend of Pruitt’s.
A lawyer by training, Kelly was the Chief Executive Officer of SpiritBank in Oklahoma when the bank lent Pruitt mortgage loans three times over the years. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC, banned Kelly for life from being a bank executive for making other loans deemed improper. The FDIC also ordered Kelly last year to pay $125,000 in civil penalties and said he was “unfit to serve.”
Critics of Kelly also site the fact that he has no previous environmental experience. But last year, Pruitt put Kelly in charge of a Superfund Task Force, whose mission was to come up with a list of ideas on how to improve Superfund. One of the task force’s concepts was to “incentivize” Superfund cleanup.
Mutter said Kelly’s arrival shows EPA’s emphasis on “achieving real results,” but did not respond directly to a question over whether Kelly would be looking to “incentivize” Butte and Anaconda’s cleanup.
Kelly is also not coming in lieu of a potential visit from Pruitt himself. EPA’s website still says a Pruitt site visit to Butte is “pending in 2018.” Mutter confirmed that Pruitt himself still intends to pay Butte a visit this year.
Despite the dark spot on Kelly's banking past, his arrival is seen as good news by both Anaconda and Butte community leaders and officials. Anaconda County Commissioner Terry Vermeire called the visit “a game changer.”
“I just feel it’s going to set the tone for negotiations from here on out,” Vermeire said.
Anaconda-Deer Lodge County does not yet have a legal agreement in place to establish the cleanup plan, even though EPA declared the county a Superfund site in 1983. Aerial emissions blew from Anaconda’s smoke stacks for close to 100 years while the town's smelters processed Butte’s copper ore. That created a 300-square-mile area of environmental damage that is partially cleaned up, but still has years left to go.
Benevento is expected to set out a timeline over how the cleanup will continue to proceed while he’s in Anaconda. The ATSDR representative will discuss a health study the federal agency plans to conduct in Anaconda. Anaconda-Deer Lodge County officials requested a health study due to concerns about cancer and other long-lingering health issues in the town.
Anaconda-Deer Lodge County has also never reached its own separate financial agreement with Atlantic Richfield Company over cleanup issues. The county got to an agreement nearly two years ago with Atlantic Richfield, but the agreement was unpopular. County Commissioners never approved it.
The county has never brought forth a new version. Those negotiations are, like talks around cleanup, held behind closed doors.
Long-time Anaconda Superfund community leader Jim Davison said the last time EPA top brass visited Anaconda was during the George W. Bush years. Davison said a visit by Kelly will give EPA “a better view of how to tackle this elephant.”
It’s not just Anaconda officials who are looking forward to Kelly and Benevento’s visit.
Butte’s Chief Executive Dave Palmer said he sees this as an opportunity to point out the Berkeley Pit to make sure “the upper echelons” are aware of Montana Resources’ new pilot project to begin pumping and treating Berkeley Pit water later this year or early next year.
Restore Our Creek Coalition spokesperson Northey Tretheway sees the visit as more proof that EPA has “a sense of urgency” to cleanup Butte.
CTEC President Dave Williams also voiced good news over the prospect.
“It can’t do any harm to sit and talk about the issues,” Williams said.