The Montana Pole Superfund Site, the former wood timber treating plant in Butte’s Boulevard neighborhood, has been back in the spotlight again and not for positive reasons. Butte-Silver Bow representatives have said they were blind-sided when they were recently told by the DEQ that the site would not be clean enough for re-use as an industrial site. Additionally, there is public concern that the site will not be clean enough to be safe for the neighborhood. We would like to explain our understanding of both concerns.
As of recently the DEQ has been very upfront with the fact that the cleanup has not gone completely according to plan. We appreciate their candidness; but that information is nothing new. If you delve into the review reports which DEQ prepares for the site, you will find that it has been public knowledge since at least 2001 that the remedy would be only partially effective at treating contaminants. Simply put, the persistent pollutant dioxin has not been removed by soil treatment. That much was clear.
What has not been clear is how that dioxin would limit the productive re-use or redevelopment of the site after the cleanup is finished. This we believe is the origin of the controversary and misunderstanding. The Montana Pole site was proposed as an appropriate place for Butte-Silver Bow to consider relocating the county maintenance shops. Implied in that proposal is the suggestion that the site will be cleaned up to standards for that use. What was never clear are the caveats that come with that offer. Caveats which include there will be a waste cap which must be maintained and any re-use of the site may entail significant costs on the part of the new owner to ensure that the remedy is not jeopardized. We understand that until recently DEQ did not have all the information needed to better describe these caveats; but we also believe that uncertainties should have been more clearly stated. Given that the caveats still need to be ironed out and given Butte-Silver Bow’s need to re-locate the shops soon, it is a good thing that they have moved on to another location.
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Regarding public safety, we do not think there is reason to believe the site will be a danger to the neighborhood or environment if it is capped. DEQ’s proposed cap is a solid barrier between the buried dioxin contamination and the surface, the cap design is appropriate, and the DEQ is committed to maintaining it. We expect the capped area will be better than a “recreational” cleanup level, because the cap prevents any contact with the dioxin. Similar capped dioxin waste exists at former industrial sites across Montana and the U.S. If located out of any floodplain and properly designed, these caps provide a high level of protection. We also would not call the soil treatment that has occurred a failure, because the contaminants other than dioxin have been treated.
As for re-use of the Montana Pole site, only time will tell. It is possible that part of the site will be clean enough to be re-used as an industrial site; part could even meet “residential” standards. If portions of the site outside of the capped area are found to meet industrial or better standards, those areas could be sold and redeveloped. What remains to be seen is if any entity will take on the risks and responsibilities that come with redeveloping or using the capped portion of the site. It’s not likely in the short term because real estate prices in Butte are still relatively low and undeveloped land remains abundant in the area. In the short term, we continue to encourage DEQ to evaluate the viability of any options which may be available for actually treating the dioxin and for cleaning as much of the site as possible to a level which allows an end use which the neighborhood is happy with.
-- All four writers are affiliated with the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, a technical advisory group in Butte. Ian Magruder is a consultant; Dave Williams is president of the board; Bill Macgregor is a board member; and Joe Griffen is a volunteer technical adviser.