The Natural Resource Damage Program conducted a tour of the second phase of its Parrot tailings removal project recently. The progress on this project is both cause for celebration and an eloquent reminder of just how close we came to leaving in place the tons of contaminants now being removed, to keep contaminating the Silver Bow Creek corridor forever.
As reporter Michael Cast of The Montana Standard reported, the huge excavation of the area behind the Civic Center where the county shops once stood is a sophisticated example of engineering, both high and low tech. As the earth is removed, overburden — soil on or near the surface — is being removed and tested and, if clean, is used to fill behind earlier excavation, so for the most part it is only being moved once. A rather amazing X-ray gun is providing nearly instantaneous soil analysis, showing parts per million of contaminants of concern in real time. Then the excavators are removing slag, smelter tailings, and highly contaminated black clay.
And — huge bonus — a previously unplanned effort to pump contaminated groundwater has not only made the excavation work easier, has also removed millions of gallons of highly contaminated water before it has a chance to migrate downstream. Thanks to Montana Resources, the water is being pumped into the mine's system, where it is treated.
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This vital work brings us to make three observations:
- It really needed to be done — those who said it didn't, for many years, including Atlantic Richfield and the EPA, were incorrect — and the project means that it's realistic to believe that with this assist, the aquifer will eventually run clean. Former Gov. Steve Bullock was right to move unilaterally to take the tailings out.
It is also by definition remediation work, and should not be funded with restoration dollars, as it is currently. Atlantic Richfield should be shouldering this expense.
- The work substantially strengthens the premise that putting a creek into the corridor is not only feasible but desirable. An excellent analysis funded by EPA and done by Water and Environmental Technologies has already shown that it can be done economically, particularly if executed at the same time the remediation work outlined in the Butte Priority Soils Consent Decree is completed. Specific plans should be made — and funded — forthwith, whether ARCO or EPA ultimately picks up the tab. It is not too much to ask and it is exactly the outcome the citizens of Butte deserve.
- We have heard for years (sometimes as one of the rationales offered for leaving the Parrot tailings in the ground) that the area under the Civic Center is contaminated too. Sophisticated, comprehensive testing, now possible, should be done. And if the ground under the Civic Center is also seriously contaminated, the venerable Civic Center, which has served the city well, should be knocked down, the ground remediated, and a new Civic Center built.
Again, Butte and Silver Bow Creek deserve nothing less. We've heard for years that cleaning the aquifer was impossible. The work already being done has shown that's not the case. Let's stay the course and do it right.