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Years ago, when my Montana Tech students periodically worked on projects with Butte Archives Director Ellen Crain, I often learned juicy bits of Butte history. Recently, I’ve been reminded of one such passing observation made in the 1990s to a team of students working with Ellen and Gerry Walter on the development of the Granite Mountain Memorial. Gerry told them that shortly after the Granite Mountain Fire, the city formed a committee to build a memorial for those who died in that disaster. That was in 1917. The memorial that Ellen, Gerry, and others actually helped create didn’t appear until the mid-1990s. That’s a long time to wait for a promise to be fulfilled.

In early 2018, members of our community were relieved to learn that the Superfund Consent Decree parties (EPA, BP/ARCO, BSB, the State) had reached an “agreement in principle,” overcoming a 12-year Superfund stalemate shrouded in court-imposed secrecy. Like others in the community, members of the Restore Our Creek Coalition were pleased to see in the published “agreement” many of the goals they had fought for. Clearly ROCC’s efforts to mobilize community involvement had paid off in many respects.

ROCC’s mission for the Silver Bow Creek corridor, supported by the involvement of hundreds of Butte citizens, and then by the signatures of 3500 more, is simple and straightforward:

— Remove the tailings,

— Restore the creek, and

— Provide amenities to make the corridor into an activity center for Butte folks.

How has that mission fared since the early 2018 agreement in principle? The plan will remove the contaminated tailings along the creek (which previously were to be left in place). The blighted acres of the corridor will be redesigned as a riparian park for public enjoyment and use, mirroring elements of the design developed by ROCC and the people of Butte. Yet the CD parties’ plans for the corridor do not contain a creek or even a creek design. The proposed plan has all kinds of details for storm water control but nothing for a restored Silver Bow Creek.

Since early 2018, EPA has assured Butte residents repeatedly that the proposed plan for the creek corridor “would not preclude” a creek in the future. Almost seven months ago ROCC, on behalf of the community, formally asked the CD parties to back their words with a feasibility study to demonstrate that a restored creek will fit among all the stormwater control features of the planned remedy. ROCC was recently encouraged when the entire Montana Congressional Delegation wrote EPA and the rest of the CD parties in support of ROCC’s simple request for a creek design and eventually a creek.

EPA has established a limited time for public comment on their proposed plan, and the clock is ticking on that schedule. The BSB Council of Commissioners will soon be tasked with responding to the proposed plan, indicating what parts of the plan are acceptable and what need changing. Members of the public have till June 11 to submit their independent comments.

The ongoing dialog between community members and EPA recently caught a break when EPA informed ROCC that it is exploring a plan to provide additional funding through CTEC’s Technical Assistance Grant program for the purpose of hiring an independent contractor chosen by ROCC to conduct the creek-restoration feasibility study requested by ROCC. Such funding will enable EPA to show that its repeated assertions can be trusted — that the remedy’s features in the creek corridor will not preclude the restored creek so many people have asked for.

The tenacity of Butte residents — their toughness, stubbornness, and feistiness — is legendary throughout Montana. Though it took 80 years before Butte families’ victims of the Granite Mountain Disaster were properly memorialized, individual Butte people like Gerry Walter made it finally happen. On behalf of Butte residents, ROCC expects that EPA’s planned funding for a feasibility study will lay out a path forward so that Butte families of today, who support the restoration of the creek, will know just what must be done in the next few years to have a restored and clean Silver Bow Creek meandering among the remedy’s storm water wetlands.

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Bill Macgregor is vice president of the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, and represents CTEC on the Restore Our Creek Coalition.

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