When EPA has a problem with public perception of potential health hazard in Butte, Montana, EPA Region 8 toxicologist Charlie Partridge rides to the rescue.
We wish EPA and Montana's Department of Environmental Quality cared a little less about calming the public's fears with folksy science and a little more about keeping the public informed in real time.
In 2009, contaminated groundwater was discovered during excavation for the construction of bleachers at Naranche Stadium. The chemical tetrachloroethylene (PCE) was discovered in groundwater at more than double the state's health standard.
It's a chemical commonly used in the dry-cleaning process, and in some other degreasing and adhesive products. It has been shown to cause neurological, kidney and liver damage and is a probable carcinogen.
Here's the kicker: Apparently because of budget issues and preoccupation with other more severely contaminated sites, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA said nothing and did not investigate the site for more than a decade. Finally, a report was commissioned and shared with Butte-Silver Bow officials last week. The 2021 report found the site posed a potential risk to human health and recommended a thorough site inspection be completed.
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Not to worry, Partridge told Butte-Silver Bow commissioners this past week.
You'd have a higher risk of cancer from eating a chili cheese dog once a week for 20 years than from exposure to the amounts of PCE found at the site, he opined.
What isn't cute is that the agencies have not done squat about this for more than a decade, leaving everybody in the dark. That would include county officials, who say they knew nothing about it. It would include the residents of an apartment building next to the high school. And it would include high school students, teachers and their families.
It's not possible for the pollution to have reached drinking water, Partridge and other state and EPA officials said. That reassures us not one whit since nobody has done any testing over the past 11 years to see exactly what this plume of pollution IS affecting.
Many questions can legitimately be asked. Why didn't the school district, which knew about the initial discovery, demand more action more quickly? Why, when the district spent more than $700,000 to install field turf at Naranche in 2016, was the issue not revisited, when it might have been much cheaper to remediate at the same time the turf work was done?
Nobody said word one.
We have little faith in the shoot-from-the-hip science from Partridge and the EPA. The apologies and assurances for more transparency going forward also mean little. Butte deserves real action and transparency on this, not a pat on the head after a decade of being ignored.