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The Environmental Protection Agency has placed the Butte and Anaconda Superfund sites on Administrator Scott Pruitt’s personal priority list –- termed the “emphasis list” in new agency parlance.

The Butte and Anaconda Superfund cleanups started 34 years ago.

The fact that these long, drawn-out and absolutely vital cleanups have been placed on an “emphasis list” at this point is of course welcome news on its face. But it is also a stunning indictment of the way they have been handled for a very long time, and just how much they have not been the “priority” they should have been.

The Superfund’s official name is the “National Priorities List.” There are currently more than 1,300 Superfund sites across the country, so being on the 21-location “emphasis list” certainly carries some weight.

Being churlish isn’t a sufficient response to this development. Indeed, the cleanup is late, and incomplete, and in some places not even started. But we are grateful to Region 8 Administrator Doug Benevento, who came to Butte and Anaconda before the letters on his office door were dry. He comes across as sincere, realistic and determined to make a difference.

He has mandated quick action on the Butte Priority Soils consent-decree negotiation. We welcome the sense of urgency.

One advantage of the lengthy cleanup delays is that technology for both remediation and restoration has advanced significantly in recent years – since, for instance, the Horseshoe Bend Treatment Plant was built. While the Berkeley Pit/mine flooding remedy is actually settled under law, in actuality the plant will need significant updating and upgrading in order to be ready for the day in 2023 when the Pit is projected to fill to critical level. The fix for the treatment plant, just like the remedy for Upper Silver Bow Creek, should be the best available, not tied to last-century technology.

The attention from Administrator Pruitt and Regional Administrator Benevento is welcome. It must produce more than a get-out-of-town-quick plan for Atlantic Richfield. It must not result in superficial, deeply flawed remedies, like the last round of arsenic cleanup in Anaconda that didn’t address lead contamination in the same places. And like the subdrain in the Upper Silver Bow Creek corridor that Atlantic Richfield and EPA are still stoutly defending as adequate, against mounting evidence.

The sites on Pruitt’s list should be examples of the nation’s will and ability to clean up its dangerous messes. The results in Butte and Anaconda will define the agency and Pruitt’s stewardship of it, in the coming years.

For Butte’s sake, and Anaconda’s, we hope the results are as good as the communities deserve.

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