Butte’s Superfund cleanup has reached a critical point. As a community, we need to hold EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality accountable for the inadequate cleanup we have received. As agencies that are charged with providing citizens with a clean and healthy natural environment, EPA and MDEQ need to collectively decide if this mission really means anything practically.
EPA’s Superfund cleanup failure has been recently brought to light by the revelation that EPA has done nothing regarding the so-called Westside Priority Soils area that roughly encompasses everything other than the Butte Hill — a pretty large area. Assessing and cleaning up this area has been talked about for decades and nothing done. Butte can never be cleaned up unless these areas are addressed and we haven’t even started the process of determining what level of contaminants is present there. The agencies aren’t even sure what constitutes the Westside Priority Souls area. While it is true that EPA is facing an austere future, this neglect of Westside Priority Soils was going on long before the current problems EPA faces nationally.
Lead and arsenic contaminates the Westside Priority Soils area. Are we only going to cleanup some of Butte? The inorganic arsenic, found in the Westside Priority Soils area, even at low levels of exposure, poses a serious threat to human health. Arsenic has been designated a human carcinogen. Arsenic can cause cancer of the lungs, liver and skin. Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause alterations in mental functions and depression. Arsenic exposure at low doses can cause nerve damage, cardiovascular problems, skin problems and constitutional complaints such as nausea, diarrhea, gastrointestinal upset, etc. Moreover, there are no known safe levels of exposure to inorganic arsenic. Lead is a neurotoxin that particularly affects children.
There is strong evidence that a significant amount of the arsenic present in attics in the Westside Soils area of Butte came from the Anaconda Smelter, a Superfund site. The prevailing wind patterns in Southwestern Montana clearly indicate that the prevailing winds flow from the Anaconda Smelter to Butte—hence a plume of trivalent arsenic contamination could have reached Butte. The toxics in the Westside Soils Superfund site are a clear and present danger to Butte’s public health and must be addressed expeditiously.
But it is not just Westside Soils that is problematic in Butte. After decades, MDEQ has announced that its remedy for dioxin at the Montana Pole Plant is not working and is being abandoned. MDEQ ignores the Pole Plant contamination under the interstate.
The removal of the Parrott and associated tailings has stalled. Unless those tailings are removed, Silver Bow Creek will never be cleaned or restored.
The critical water level in the Pit will soon be reached. Will the remedy work?
Storm water runoff has yet to be comprehensively addressed and still pollutes Silver Bow Creek.
Consent decree negotiations appear halted and with them any permanent solution to Butte’s Superfund problems. Unnecessary secrecy still shrouds these negotiations.
Indifference, lethargy, paternalism, bureaucratic bumbling and excuses seem to dominate EPA’s and MDEQ’s approach to finishing the Butte cleanup.
Butte’s public health as well as attempts to economically revitalize Butte are being held hostage to this indolence, incompetence and apathy.
Only in an alternative universe of alternative facts could anyone claim the Superfund is working well in Butte.
Minimally, EPA and MDEQ need to:
1. Indicate exactly what is occurring at the various Superfund sites in Butte. (Priority Soils, Berkeley Pit, Montana Pole Plant and Westside Priority Soils)
2. Provide a firm timetable indicating clearly when what needs to be done will be done and who will be responsible for doing it.
3. Indicate, specifically, when we will finally get started in assessing and cleaning up the Westside Priority Soils area. This area has fallen through the cracks for too long.
4. Address the issues of informing and involving the public in Superfund decision making on a timely and comprehensive basis.
5. Inform, explicitly, the public where we stand with Restore Our Creek. Are the agencies still firmly committed to achieving a restored Creek?
Perhaps a town hall could be held to provide this information. Butte citizens have a right to demand and receive answers.
-- John Ray, PhD, teaches classes at Montana Tech in public policy and political science. He is a member of the board of CTEC (Citizens Technical Environmental Committee) and is chairperson of Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice. The views expressed by Dr. Ray are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech, CTEC or Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice.