Below the center of Butte flows water tainted with poisons drawn from a mass of mining and smelting waste that has been a pollution problem for more than a century.
The deadly bright-blue plume “is the most contaminated mine water in the state of Montana,” hydrogeologist Joe Griffin says.
No one argues that point. But a raging dispute centers on what to do about it — and about the tailings from the Parrot mine and smelter that are feeding the deadly brew of metals-laced water.
The polluted groundwater is flowing inexorably toward Silver Bow Creek, and critics of the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-standing decision to leave the tailings in the middle of the city as “waste in place” say it could eventually endanger the recently completed cleanup of the lower part of the creek, which cost an estimated $147 million.
That EPA decision has been roundly criticized as being based on a flawed scientific model — and also for its intrinsic capitulation to the concept that Butte will never be able to be truly cleaned up, never be able to remove the taint of mine pollution from its very heart.
Nobody is saying the Parrot pollution is currently a human health concern — but its potential to affect the fragile remediation of Silver Bow Creek could be a body blow to Butte’s effort to move on from the grievous environmental damage caused by its mining legacy.
In an interview for this story, the EPA’s manager for the Butte Hill portion of the Superfund cleanup acknowledged the inaccuracy of the agency's earlier study on the speed the groundwater is moving. And the manager, Nikia Greene, also said he is open to looking at data if the state can show evidence that removing the waste’s source could clean water flowing through the site within the next century.
"I've never seen that data that tells me it’ll clean up before 100 years," Greene told the Standard. "Show me data that says this will clean up groundwater faster, and I will look at that."
Meanwhile, public pressure to remove the tailings is gaining steam. A decision to do so would immediately engender more key questions: Who will do it, and when? How much will it cost, and who will pay?
While the Atlantic Richfield Company and the EPA are the most conventional responses to the “who” questions, it may ultimately fall to the state of Montana — which has long advocated the removal — to get the enormous, dirty job done. The state’s Natural Resource Damage Council has actually formulated a cleanup plan (see related story).
Like opponents maneuvering on a giant chessboard of mine waste and money, the primary players in the drama are approaching an endgame — a consent decree that will set out final cleanup terms. The stakes are huge for ARCO, which inherited responsibility for Butte’s mine pollution when it purchased the Anaconda Copper Mining Company 38 years ago, and for the EPA, because of its role in administering the largest Superfund site in the nation, as well as for the state of Montana and Butte-Silver Bow county. Over the years, positions and arguments among those players have ebbed and flowed, often within confidential and therefore invisible negotiations. The biggest stakeholders — the people of Butte — are frequently left on the outside wondering what will happen next.
It is wholly unsurprising that the Parrot tailings are causing so much distress. The Parrot smelter was the site of the world’s first — failed — attempt at air pollution control. And the tailings — full of lead, arsenic, cadmium, copper and zinc — were early contributors to the pollution of Silver Bow Creek, which became so bad a judge ruled in 1893 that the city had to change its water source (see historical timeline).
The EPA and Montana Department of Environmental Quality have been in disagreement over the groundwater contamination, the Parrot tailings, and the additional mine waste along George Street — often collectively referred to as the Parrot corridor — since at least 2004, said Griffin, former MDEQ manager for the Butte Hill.
The state has been fighting to clean up the Parrot corridor. The EPA disagrees removal is necessary. Greene says the plume is stable and not moving.
Gary Icopini, a senior research hydrogeologist with the Bureau of Mines and Geology, said he’s never seen any evidence to support that conclusion. Icopini, along with Nick Tucci, were the two state scientists who studied the aquifer and wrote reports on their findings in 2010 and 2012.
Griffin said it is "irresponsible" of the EPA to contend the plume is not moving. "They have nothing to support that," he said.
Icopini said the Bureau concluded from the 2012 study that in roughly thirty years the Parrot plume has traveled approximately 80 percent of the way to Blacktail Creek.
The EPA's record of decision for the Butte Hill says the contaminants from the Parrot tailings would take 200 years to reach Silver Bow Creek and said the tailings should be left in place.
What is the Parrot corridor?
The Parrot corridor consists of four individual sites: the Parrot tailings, two areas along George Street called Diggings East and the Northside tailings, and the Blacktail berm behind the visitor center.
The plume is located in an aquifer that is approximately 50 to 60 feet below ground, Icopini said. Scientists refer to the section where the plume lives as the middle alluvial unit. It is made up of mostly gravel and sand. Above that is sand, silt and clay. What's below it is unknown, environmental scientist for the NRD Jim Ford said. State scientists argue the gravel and sand in the middle enables the dirty water to move through the soil. All of the state's former and current scientists who spoke with the Standard say it's moving toward the creeks.
The Diggings East is a 24-acre barren area behind the Butte Town Center. Contamination exists on the surface at this site, likely the result of tailings that flowed downstream during smelting in the late 1800s.
The Northside tailings, another shallow contamination site due to century- old tailings, is about 5½ acres. The Northside tailings is a slender stretch lying along the northern edge of the mostly dry drainage ditch — historically Silver Bow Creek — beside George Street.
About 250 feet behind the visitor center is the Blacktail berm. Another area of surface contamination, the berm is also likely the result of smelter operations from days long gone. Icopini said the state believes the berm poses a danger because of its location next to Blacktail Creek. The berm is one acre, but if the wetlands behind it are included, then that site grows to nine acres, Pat Cunneen, Butte Natural Resource Damage Council environmental scientist, said. Cunneen says the wetlands are likely contaminated too.
What’s at stake?
Fish began appearing in Silver Bow Creek less than 10 years ago. While the health of the creek is greatly improved since the days when it was a devastated wasteland, the increased health is fragile. It has also been expensive.
In a 2015 study, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks looked at five limited sections of the stream from Rocker to Opportunity and found 15 westslope cutthroat trout and 15 brook trout. Jason Lindstrom, fisheries manager, stressed this study does not provide a comprehensive count of the fish. The sections studied were 1,000 feet long. But it might give an indication of what's going on in the lower portion of the creek from interstate 90 to Warm Springs Ponds. The trout population in upper Silver Bow Creek — the part that runs through town — is likely smaller than the not fully known numbers of trout living downstream. Lindstrom said trout do occur in the upper portion of the creek, but fish population there consists mostly of tiny fish — suckers and sculpin — that bigger fish feed on.
Lindstrom said the quality of the habitat in upper Silver Bow Creek is the likely cause of why fish numbers are low. He cited a lack of vegetation on the creek banks to keep water temperatures cool, discharge coming from Butte’s wastewater treatment plant, and contamination running into the creek off the Butte Hill during storms. In regards to the Parrot contamination, Lindstrom said MFWP supports anything that creates better water quality for Silver Bow Creek.
The cleanup of lower Silver Bow Creek, now complete after 16 years of work, cost $147 million, Joel Chavez, MDEQ project manager on that section of the cleanup, told the Standard.
Griffin says he’s concerned over the creek’s future if the Parrot is not addressed now.
Greene says he will receive financial assurances from a bank on behalf of ARCO’s parent company, BP (formerly called British Petroleum), as to its ability to meet cleanup commitments. How much BP will be on the hook for Greene could not disclose. Those figures are part of the current consent-decree negotiations, held in confidence by a court order and now underway.
A look at BP's public financial disclosures provides a mixed picture. At the beginning of July, BP announced it would pay $18.7 billion over 18 years to settle legal responsibilities for Deepwater Horizon, the 2010 oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The settlement is pending a judge’s approval, Jason Ryan, press officer for BP, told the Standard.
BP is in the process of divesting $48 billion of assets by 2015. But in March, BP announced the development of 5 trillion cubic feet of gas resources in Egypt, a potential financial boon.
Greene said if a contamination issue arises in the future and ARCO fails to pay, the EPA would cover the cost.
"If we had data that said (the contaminated water) wasn't being captured, we would do something about it," Greene said. "We wouldn't just let it go."
But the EPA's own financial resources are limited. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who sits on the appropriations committee in the Senate, acknowledged the EPA's budget has seen some trimming since 2010, when the EPA's budget reached an all-time high of $10.2 billion. The 2015 budget was $8.2 billion to oversee 1,321 sites. The agency has also seen staff trimming. Between 2012 and 2014, the EPA lost close to 2,000 employees.
Robert Daguillard, press officer for the EPA, emailed a statement to the Standard stating, in part, the loss of employees was due to attrition and retirement, but the agency also offered early retirement packages to some staff.
Tester said he doesn't support the cuts the agency has faced in recent years and offered amendments to "buck it up," but his amendments failed.
"It's an attempt to neuter the agency," Tester told the Standard.
In 1995 Congress allowed the so-called "Superfund" tax on petroleum and chemical companies to expire. It was that tax that created the original funding source to enable the EPA to clean up sites when responsible parties failed to do so. Daguillard stated in his email that Superfund money now comes from general tax revenue.
What's in place now?
ARCO built a system to capture contaminated groundwater coming from the Butte Hill, treat it, and send it back into Silver Bow Creek. The project began in 1998, Ryan said. ARCO completed the system in 2014, Greene said. Greene also said Silver Bow Creek has met standards for aquatic life since January 2011.
The EPA’s record of decision says groundwater will be treated in Butte in perpetuity. The system consists of four parts: the sub-drain, a pump vault, the hydraulic control channel, and the Butte Treatment Lagoons.
The sub-drain lies underground. It is about five feet deep from the surface. It rests in a bed of gravel beneath the mostly dry drainage ditch — frequently called the Metro Storm Drain, or MSD, channel — parallel to George Street. The sub-drain is a slotted pipe. One way to think of it is a pipe with holes in it so the dirty water can move into it. The pump vault, located across from the visitor center, sends the dirty water on its way from the sub-drain into a regular pipe. The regular pipe transports the dirty water into an above-ground concrete channel. That channel — called the hydraulic control channel — provides a concrete pathway west of the slag walls at South Montana Street. Once the dirty water is in the hydraulic control channel, it moves above ground and flows along in an area that looks like a waste land beside Silver Bow Creek before emptying into the Butte Treatment Lagoons. The lagoons consist of nine ponds and are visible from Interstate 90.
The lagoons are monitored and treated with lime to make the metals drop out as the water flows through the ponds and eventually discharges into Silver Bow Creek.
The treatment lagoons receive praise from Griffin, who up until a few months ago represented the state's position.
"It's susceptible to upsets to the system," Griffin told the Standard, “but it's pretty efficient. It works pretty well."
The system in place now, from the underground sub-drain starting just south of Harrison Avenue to the Butte Treatment Lagoon discharge near the I-90 overpass, is enabling Silver Bow Creek to meet standards for aquatic life during normal flow. Because of that, Greene says the EPA will not — and cannot — change its position on digging up the contamination in the Parrot corridor.
"We have to base our decision (about the cleanup) off what's going on in the stream," Greene said. "The data is telling us it's working."
But scientists who work for the state in various agencies disagree with the assessment that the capture system is working — at least as far as the dirty water coming from the old Parrot tailings is concerned.
Ted Duaime, a hydrogeologist who supervised the bureau’s 2010 study on the Parrot, said the system in place is "not a preferred way to create a capture system."
Duaime pointed out the sub-drain, lying horizontally underground from approximately the Civic Center to the visitor center, is about five feet deep. The contaminated water coming from the Parrot is approximately 50 to 60 feet deep.
BP's Ryan said the sub-drain does work. In an emailed statement, Ryan commented, "the conditions in the area around the Butte Chamber of Commerce are similar to how an artesian well works, as deeper groundwater in the area naturally upwells to the surface."
Dave Williams, a geologist who chairs the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee — a group funded by the EPA — says the sub-drain was not designed to capture all of the pollution from the Parrot tailings.
“It couldn't have been, because they didn’t know where all of it was,” Williams told the Standard.
Ryan disagrees. In his emailed statement, he commented: "The MSD sub-drain is fulfilling its intended purpose and effectively intercepts groundwater before it reaches Silver Bow Creek."
Ford was also critical of the sub-drain’s ability to capture the dirty water emanating from the Parrot.
"It's a 10-inch pipe; it's not logical," Ford said.
A gap in the system
Another problem with the capture system is a gap. From the visitor center to the lagoon ponds, no ground water is being captured.
A 2012 study stated contaminated water is impacting Silver Bow Creek where the slag walls border the creek channel. Greene said that has been fixed.
That area falls within the capture system's gap.
Greene said the EPA is looking at the gap and ARCO is expected to produce a revised study on the gap by the end of this month.
Greene acknowledged zinc is showing up in Silver Bow Creek within the gap, but he says it is more likely coming from the slag walls, not the Parrot corridor. He said he is currently reviewing data that suggests the slag walls are the cause.
Where's the contamination?
No one knows why exactly heavier amounts of contamination are not showing up in the creek. But several state scientists strongly disagree with Greene that the lack of its appearance in the creek is a reason to leave the Parrot tailings in place.
Ford called expecting the majority of the contamination to show up in the creek at this point a "fundamental misunderstanding of science."
Greene responded by saying the EPA believes contaminated groundwater is being captured.
Groundwater and surface water transport contaminants differently, Ford said, and metals would partition off into sediment under or around the creek before entering the stream. But in the future, the metals would begin to appear.
"This is very well-established science. The EPA has written guidance on this," Ford said. "They're looking in the wrong (material). You monitor groundwater. You don’t wait till it shows up in the creek."
Greene acknowledged the EPA has such guidance but said certain conditions must exist for the partitioning of sediment to happen.
Ford said there are wells within five feet of the creek that have very high concentrations of contaminants.
Duaime warned, regardless of what’s going on in the creek now, the Parrot plume has the potential to find its way into Blacktail and Silver Bow Creeks as time goes on.
Greene responded by saying there are a lot of 'what ifs.'
“If the data was telling us it’s not working, we would be all over it,” Greene said.
Icopini said contaminated groundwater is hitting the creek near the KOA. He said it’s not bad enough yet to cause the creek to exceed standards. He also said no one knows for sure its source.
Scientists representing the state say the plume has never been adequately understood. Greene says it has. He said 135 wells are in place at the site.
Ford said other aspects of the Butte Hill were characterized adequately but the EPA failed to fully understand groundwater when the agency looked at the site in the early years.
"The (record of decision) was finalized in 2006. It's 2015, and we’re still debating where the contamination resides and where it's going. I think that sort of answers it," Ford said.
Icopini criticized the placement of the wells — the majority of them are in a line, he said — as well as the depths of the wells. Some are shallow and some are deep, but they’re all treated as if they're measuring the same thing.
“The water table will change depending on which well you use,” Icopini said. “That complicates what’s going on there.”
Griffin said there should be more wells.
Greene said that as the EPA finds data gaps, the agency puts in more wells.
While the EPA and the other negotiating parties work toward a consent decree, for the Butte Hill and upper Silver Bow Creek, activists are speaking clearly: They want the Parrot cleaned up.
"How can I enforce ARCO to remove something that the data tells me shouldn't be removed?" Greene asked.
But many remain unconvinced.
Tester sent a letter in June to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy during the agency's recent five-year Superfund review saying he wants the Parrot tailings removed.
"Butte should be driving the bus on this, whether it costs $50 million or $50 bucks," Tester told the Standard.
The reply Tester received was signed by Shaun McGrath, EPA regional administrator. McGrath’s letter did not address Tester’s remarks regarding the Parrot corridor.
Others who have spoken publicly on this issue as well as written letters to the EPA include local groups such as Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice, Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition, Butte Natural Resource Damage Council, and CTEC. Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Matt Vincent and Planning Director/Superfund Coordinator Jon Sesso say they support the tailings’ removal (see related story). Gov. Bullock says he supports cleaning up the tailings.
Bullock stated through his deputy communications director Mike Wessler via email: "The Governor’s top priority is the cleanup of the site. Details of how best to go about it are to be worked out."
Current MDEQ project manager Darryl Reed would not comment to the Standard for this story other than to say that MDEQ continues to support removal of the tailings.
Project Green, a group previously dormant, has regrouped along with Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition and Citizens for Labor and Environmental Justice to rally for a cleanup.
"It’s the future of our community," Project Green board president Northey Tretheway told the Standard. "We have to do something. We don’t have forever to make things right."
The Butte Natural Resource Damage Council set aside $10 million that came from a 2008 settlement with ARCO to clean up the worst of the Parrot contamination. BNRC board chair Elizabeth Erickson said they set aside the money toward a cleanup of the Parrot corridor because the public overwhelmingly wanted it done.
“We still have a source area in the middle of our town that’s contaminating groundwater, and it’s moving faster than was previously thought,” Erickson told the Standard. “We need to address the threat.”
In an effort to effect change, three citizens formed the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition in 2010 to launch a lawsuit against MDEQ. The lawsuit is over the name of the approximately 1.5 mile stretch of mostly dry creek bed along George Street to Silver Bow Creek. Official documents call that area the Metro Storm Drain, or MSD, channel. The Works Project Administration built it roughly in the area of the historic Silver Bow Creek channel in the 1930s for flood control. One of the members, Fritz Daily, says the coalition started the lawsuit as a way to force the state and the EPA to clean up the Parrot corridor.
Daily said his group believes that if the mostly dry channel is called a creek, then legally it becomes waters of the state and the state will have a constitutional duty to clean up that area.
“Hopefully we’re putting that pressure on them to do what’s right,” Daily told the Standard. “Unless they remove those tailings, we’re not going to have a clean creek.”
Can the two sides ever agree?
While the debate between state scientists and the EPA is painfully complex and appears permanently intractable, a flicker of hope might be gleaming in the distance. Greene told the Standard the EPA wants to work with the state.
"We want to work with them, and we're in support of their restoration efforts," Greene said.
Ryan said in his email that ARCO has not pledged anything further "for restoration work."
This is important because the NRD proposal to take out the worst of the contamination currently hinges on ARCO putting in $10 million.
Ryan added: "Atlantic Richfield paid $72.5 million to the State to settle all then-remaining National Resource Damage restoration claims, and the State allocated $28 million of that sum to Butte for restoration. Excavation of buried tailings and other wastes for restoration purposes was the basis of that claim, and the dollar amount of the settlement was derived from cost estimates that included the removal of the Parrot tailings and other waste materials in the area. We leave it to the state to determine how these funds may best be spent."