Tester urges tailings removal

Montana Standard

by Justin Post

A U.S. senator on Friday called for the removal of the toxic Parrot Tailings buried near the Butte Civic Center.

Sen. Jon Tester, citing scientists at Montana Tech, called the tailings a “serious threat” to the region’s public health.

He is urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to work together toward the removal of the tailings.

Leaving the tailings in place, Tester said, risks reversing previous restoration work to the Mining City’s water system.

The Parrot smelter produced blister copper in the late 1800s, leaving behind the metal-laden tailings.

The roughly 300,000-cubic-feet Parrot Tailings are a source of contention between the EPA and DEQ, which disagree whether the material should be removed.

The EPA has proposed that the Parrot Mine tailings, in the area of the county shops by the Butte Civic Center, be undisturbed and capped, while DEQ representatives have voiced concerns with leaving the waste in place.

Representatives from the two agencies also have traded barbs over groundwater flow rates below the tailings, whether all of the contaminated groundwater is being captured by the metro storm drain and whether the contaminant plume might impact water quality in Silver Bow Creek.

DEQ data suggests that groundwater moves quickly through the tailings, creating a toxic plume.

“This leads scientists at Montana Tech and many citizens to believe that a removal action is warranted, and I agree with them,” Tester wrote in a Friday letter to Richard Opper, director of the Montana DEQ, and Jim Martin, Region 8 administrator of the EPA.

The senator pointed out that recent cost estimates have significantly reduced the anticipated tab to remove the tailings.

It’s expected to cost $12.9 million to $15.3 million to remove the tailings, down from a previous $20 million estimate released in 2009.

Julie Dalsoglio, regional director of the EPA in Helena, said the agency has been in talks with the DEQ, the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program and Atlantic Richfield about the matter, and said those discussions will continue.

Opper, the DEQ director, said his agency is not opposed to the removal of the Parrot Tailings, “but we are still collecting information to determine what the best solution is.”

He added that he’s also looking forward to working with the EPA, Atlantic Richfield and the city of Butte to develop a long-term plan.

Butte-Silver Bow Planning Director Jon Sesso said he hopes the senator’s letter puts those talks on the fast track toward a final decision.

“We appreciate Sen. Tester’s attention to the Parrot Tailings issue; hopefully his letter will get the agencies off dead center and be a catalyst for decisions and action,” he said. “From our perspective there is a clear path forward to implement a comprehensive cleanup of the groundwater in the headwaters of Silver Bow Creek.”