In the Butte Superfund cleanup, the longest-running Kabuki production this side of the Pacific, what appears to be rational is routinely dismissed as fantasy, and what appears to be real is frequently revealed to be chimera.
Onto this well-trodden stage about this same time last year came Gov. Steve Bullock, who decided to cut through the drama and take simple action. The state would not wait for EPA and ARCO to hem and haw and trade favors in secret negotiations even as they held their masks and recited their tired lines onstage. He would not wait to see if they ultimately reconsidered their scientifically indefensible position that the Parrot tailings pose no threat to groundwater or to Silver Bow Creek. The tailings, he said, should come out, and he instructed the Natural Resource Damage Program to “get dirt moving” by summer 2016.
Necessary? Absolutely. Refreshing? Certainly.
But anybody who thought that was the end of the Parrot tailings controversy seriously underestimated the actors behind the masks, who prefer to do their real work well outside the sightlines of the suckers in the seats, also known as Butte’s citizens.
After letting Bullock simmer for months in the bureaucratic soup of county-shop location issues, and realizing he had election-related time constraints as well as cash constraints posed by the relative peanuts left to Butte after so much more has been spent elsewhere, ARCO finally saw its opportunity: Its approval was needed to forward the state’s plan to dump the contaminated tailings near the Berkeley Pit. Every other option had been exhausted. The governor needed ARCO’s help to accomplish what the company had long insisted did not need to be done.
The result, so far, has been predictable. The approval has not been forthcoming. We should make no mistake about who is responsible for that. And we applaud Bullock for sticking to his guns and refusing to negotiate a Butte Priority Soils consent decree until ARCO relents.
Meanwhile, EPA has released its 5-year review of the area-wide cleanup. It’s a year late, but its contents are depressingly familiar.
Once again, the EPA concludes, there is no evidence to indicate the waste-in-place remedy is not the right solution for the upper Silver Bow Creek watershed. That assertion, given the research that has been done by various agencies over the past five years and what it shows, is stunning.
A draft summary of the review does note, however, that “there is a fair amount of concern in the community regarding remedy” at Butte Priority Soils.
You could say that.
As The Montana Standard has surveyed this landscape over the past year and a half, we have repeatedly raised the issue of transparency. How, exactly, are the actions of local, state and federal government representatives to determine a plan for Butte’s future not the people’s business?
Some of the consent-decree negotiators have promised to take various steps toward transparency. Certainly, some of those promises have been well-intentioned. But none of them have assuaged that “concern in the community” that EPA so correctly identifies.
The EPA has given us dire warnings of what may transpire if The Montana Standard and the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition are successful in our legal effort, launched last week, to open up those negotiations to the public.
“Most or all” of the parties would refuse to negotiate if “confidentiality … could not be assured,” the agency told us. But both Bullock and Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Matt Vincent have said that while they will abide by a judge’s decision, they would welcome true transparency in the negotiations.
Around the country, the EPA routinely seeks confidentiality for such negotiations, although there is no law or federal regulation demanding it. But whatever is done elsewhere, we believe Butte to be a special circumstance. We all know this is the largest Superfund site in the nation. We all know this Superfund litigation spans nearly two decades.
And we all know what should be done. It’s no secret, even if the talks are secret.
Butte deserves a cleanup and a restoration second to none. It deserves a clean waterway flowing through a restored environment, and a storm water solution that won’t unfairly burden local taxpayers. And it deserves a real, practicable, and paid-for remedy to the Berkeley Pit.
For fourteen years, secret talks have not produced what Butte deserves. Let’s try bringing the citizens into the room, and holding both those responsible for the pollution and our public agencies accountable in real time.
We’ve been hearing the lines recited behind the masks for too long.