On the front page of today's edition of The Montana Standard is an extremely thorough story outlining the current plan, agreed upon in principle by negotiators, to clean up the Butte Hill.
It is exhilarating to be at this stage of the process: To know what has been agreed upon, to be able to see in clear detail precisely the plan to give Butte the fresh start it deserves.
We must first applaud EPA Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento for striding onto the stage and bringing the rest of the dramatis personae together to perform the crucial final act of a four-decade-long drama. No other would-be protagonist has been able to do a fraction of what he has accomplished.
In many ways, in many parts of our town, this cleanup plan is fantastic. For the first time, it appears that EPA, the state, the county and Atlantic Richfield are dealing realistically with the Slag Canyon and Butte Reduction Works. For the first time, these parties have agreed that yes, the greatly contaminated mining waste in the Northside tailings, the Diggings East and the Blacktail berm must come out. Not be left in place. (In addition to the Parrot tailings, for which we can thank Governor Steve Bullock.)
Insufficiently remediated sites and unremediated sites will be cleaned up correctly. Blacktail Creek will finally get the attention it deserves. For all of this, we heartily congratulate all the parties.
Dan Villa, Bullock's budget director, deserves a great deal of credit for helping the negotiators get to yes — and for standing his ground. The state has long advocated taking the polluting tailings out of the watershed, not simply leaving waste in place and treating water that is polluted by it, and Villa gave away none of that while helping to forge an agreement.
Now that the hosannas have been recited, though, it's our uncomfortable task to point out what this agreement does not do.
In Restore Our Creek Coalition's very thorough, painstaking process of gathering community input — of finding out just what Butte citizens want from the cleanup — two overarching principles rang through clearly:
- Take the wastes out, don't cover them up.
- Restore the headwaters of Silver Bow Creek with a free-flowing stream running from the Texas Avenue down to the confluence with Blacktail Creek.
If you're scoring with us at home, this cleanup plan scores an even 50 percent on those two key points.
Benevento says, "We can't provide you with that, but we can make it possible for it to happen." And he stoutly maintains that the agreed-upon cleanup leaves ample room in the upper Silver Bow Creek corridor for a creek to be a reality. Other EPA experts hedge that bet, saying that the stormwater retention ponds which are currently designed into the system "will produce riparian features." While we are sure the ponds can be dressed up with walkways and interpretive signage, they hardly represent the headwaters vision so many in Butte have sought.
The excuses of those who say such a creek is an impossible dream have been disappearing, one by one, of late. For a long time, the argument was, "There's no water for it." While this was never true, Montana Resources' recently announced plan to treat and release some five million gallons a day from the Berkeley Pit certainly puts paid to that argument. The rest of the protestations simply boil down to money and engineering.
Now, we believe, is no time for equivocation. If the parties say their remedy is compatible with a creek, let them prove it with a solidly engineered plan for restoration that makes the creek a reality. If it turns out the large retention ponds, to be put where the Diggings East and Northside Tailings are now, make such a creek physically impossible, the remedy must be altered to correct that.
We do not accept that such a restoration plan isn't part of the negotiators' brief. For one thing, Atlantic Richfield ultimately must pay for it — as it is paying for the rest of the project. So it must be a part of the negotiated result for that reason.
Secondly, the document setting forth this cleanup isn't called a "consent decree" for nothing. It must have the consent not only of Atlantic Richfield, the state, and the EPA but also of Butte-Silver Bow. And our local government must not agree to something that falls so far short of what so many people in Butte have sought for so long.
The accomplishments of the Benevento-led EPA, of Butte-Silver Bow, and the state and Atlantic Richfield over the past year have been remarkable. But let's not settle for a partial result.
After 35 years of Superfund, resolution should not be based on promises and assurances. The facts must be there. The message from the county — and ultimately, from the rest of the parties — to Atlantic Richfield must be clear: Before you are done here, the headwaters of Silver Bow Creek — not just Blacktail Creek, not just lower Silver Bow Creek — must once again flow free.