Tester says he'll meet with EPA boss on Butte cleanup

by Susan Dunlap

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester expressed shock when he learned at a breakfast meeting Monday that the Butte hill consent-decree negotiations – which will determine Superfund cleanup and its costs – are held in secret between Atlantic Richfield Company and federal, state and county officials.

Tester met with about 15 members of the Restore Our Creek Coalition – a group coalescing around the Parrot cleanup between the Civic Center and the Visitor’s Center – to discuss a number of Superfund issues in Butte. The breakfast meeting at Gamer’s Cafe in Uptown preceded a public forum to be held Tuesday evening. The forum, co-sponsored by The Montana Standard and Restore Our Creek, will bring representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the state, and the county to discuss cleanup concerns in the Parrot corridor and on the Butte hill. Tester will not be able to attend the forum.

Restore Our Creek members raised numerous concerns at the breakfast, including the fact that ARCO, EPA, state and county officials meet in private to negotiate Butte’s consent decree. Once it is signed, the consent decree will be legally binding and will determine the cleanup in Butte as well as how much ARCO will pay to keep heavy metal contamination from impacting the town and upper Silver Bow Creek. Ultimately, the consent decree will determine how healthy Butte and Silver Bow Creek’s future will be. Tester was visibly surprised to learn this is not a public process.

“Is that legal?” Tester asked.

The consent decree negotiations are held behind closed doors by a federal judge’s court order, which was signed in 2002.

Tester took notes during the discussion and asked many questions, trying to grasp the various ailments Butte suffers due to more than 100 years of hard rock mining and smelting. Some of the issues raised at the breakfast include the future of the Parrot corridor, run-off after storms, groundwater contamination, the Berkeley Pit’s treatment and discharge and Silver Bow Creek’s inability to meet water quality standards year-round.

Longtime Superfund watchdog Fritz Daily said the record of decision, a 700-page document that lays out Butte’s heavy metal problems, should be reopened.

Tester told the Standard after the breakfast that he will meet with EPA director Gina McCarthy to talk about the urgency of the cleanup issues in Butte.

“EPA needs to step up and ARCO needs to be held accountable,” Tester said.

Northey Tretheway, president of Restore Our Creek, expressed concern that Butte has had to contend with a piecemeal cleanup approach. Superfund in Butte has meant “a fix here, a fix there.”

“A comprehensive cleanup has not been considered,” Tretheway said. “We need something done right.”

Daily talked at length about the Parrot corridor and his vision of a free-flowing creek to run from the Civic Center to the Visitor’s Center.

Hydrogeologist Joe Griffin suggested creating linked, man-made ponds to create a wetland area between the Civic Center and the Visitor’s Center. Such ponds could capture run-off from storms and capture the heavy metal contamination before the water reaches Silver Bow Creek.

Roy Morris, president of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said it doesn’t make sense that EPA took down Missoula’s Milltown Dam, which came down in 2008 on the Clark Fork River just east of Missoula, before cleaning up Butte.

“Whatever happens here happens in Missoula,” Morris said.

Tester stressed how important the public’s involvement became in Milltown Dam’s removal. Over 10,000 Missoulians wrote letters to EPA demanding Milltown Dam be torn down due to the toxic sediment that was lodged behind the dam.

Many at the breakfast agreed that public support is crucial to ensuring a good cleanup on the Butte hill.
“The public can have an effect on government,” Tester said. “And (it can affect) the private sector.”