EPA: Butte Hill cleanup agreement reached

by Montana Standard, Susan Dunlap

The Environmental Protection Agency has reached a milestone agreement with all the parties on the Butte Hill Superfund cleanup, it announced Friday.

EPA has set a goal of having all the work on the nation’s largest Superfund site complete by the end of 2024. That would initiate the delisting process from the National Priorities List.

The most notorious part of the larger Silver Bow Creek/Butte Area Superfund site – the Berkeley Pit – is included in that plan. That will “lift the stigma” of being a Superfund site, EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento said before a packed house Friday at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives.

EPA and the state are also working to bring “sunshine” to this week’s agreement on the Butte Hill. Because of a federal court gag order, the 12 years’ worth of talks over the Butte Hill have all taken place behind closed doors.

Benevento hopes to adjust that court order around the agreement so the people of Butte can know the details. Dan Villa, the state’s budget director, said during the public meeting that the state would be talking to Judge Sam Haddon to see if the court order could be “loosened” as soon as possible.

Benevento gave a general time frame of spring or summer as to when he wants to see that accomplished.

He said all the parties involved agree that the public should be allowed to know more.

The confidentiality order affected how much Benevento could say about what the agreement actually means for Butte during his 1 ½-hour presentation. (See information box.)

But there will be a public process, giving residents an opportunity to weigh in on the details before anything becomes formalized and concrete, Benevento said. EPA doesn’t expect the agreement to reach the final stage of getting signatures from all parties to the agreement until the end of 2018.

What EPA did reveal during the meeting is that there will be infrastructure built to control storm water along the creek. He specifically mentioned the tailings waste along George Street as well as Buffalo Gulch and Grove Gulch. Buffalo Gulch empties at Silver Bow Creek just east of South Montana Street. Grove Gulch reaches Silver Bow Creek just east of the Lexington Avenue Bridge.

The state has long maintained that all of these areas are problem spots where heavy metals are getting into the waterway.

Whether removal of the much-fought-over Parrot tailings – more than 100-year-old mining and smelting waste buried behind the Butte Civic Center – is part of the deal is unknown. But Benevento’s list of what he could say will be done includes removing contaminated sediment, streambanks, and adjacent floodplain materials along Silver Bow Creek and Blacktail Creek.

That at least appears to suggest that additional issues such as Blacktail Berm, which is behind the Chamber of Commerce, and the Parrot tailings will be addressed under this agreement.

When Montana Standard editor David McCumber asked if the agreement addresses the “knowledge gap” that exists between now and 2006, when the cleanup’s general terms were laid out in a record of decision, Montana Superfund Unit Manager Joe Vranka said he believed this week’s agreement “satisfies everybody.”

The state never agreed with the 2006 document because it said contamination flowing from the Parrot tailings waste would not reach Silver Bow Creek for 200 years. The state demonstrated in 2012 that the contamination was already 80 percent of the way to Blacktail Creek.

Even if all the details are unknown, reaching the agreement is a major milestone in the 35-year-long cleanup of Silver Bow Creek and Butte. The confidential talks have included EPA, Atlantic Richfield Company, the county, the railroads, and state agencies.

Patricia Gallery, commercial director for Atlantic Richfield, traveled in from BP’s Houston headquarters this week to participate in the talks. Atlantic Richfield is a subsidiary of oil giant BP. Gallery attended Benevento’s presentation.

Gallery told The Montana Standard after the meeting that Atlantic Richfield has done “an enormous amount of work.”

“But we recognize the job isn’t done,” she said. “We have a long way to go, but this is the final framework to finishing the remedy.”

After so many years of a stalemate, the agreement comes just three months into Benevento’s tenure in the top job for Region 8. Benevento made Butte’s Superfund cleanup a priority as soon as he took his position in October.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt put both Butte and Anaconda, which is a separate Superfund site, on his “emphasis list” last month. That means that both sites are being fast-tracked for completion and are getting Pruitt’s “immediate and intense attention.”

“Cleaning up America’s most contaminated sites has been a priority since the get-go of this administration, and the Silver Bow Creek Butte Area is no exception,” Pruitt said this morning. “Today, EPA is taking the necessary steps to ensure a full, protective cleanup for these Montana communities to achieve better environmental and health outcomes.”

Many of EPA’s most outspoken critics expressed cautious hope after the meeting’s end Friday. While Benevento stressed that EPA can’t always “say yes” and that there are limitations to what the federal agency can accomplish, he said that the current agreement “enables” the vision Restore Our Creek Coalition has long held at the heart of its mission – to remove the hazardous waste from Texas Avenue to George Street and construct a meandering creek through the center of the Flat.

Restore Our Creek Coalition spokesperson Northey Tretheway told the Standard after the meeting that he is “encouraged” by what he saw and heard during Benevento’s presentation Friday.

Sister Mary Jo McDonald, who is a member of Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Coalition, said she is “very hopeful.”

Retired state Project Manager Joe Griffin said he is “pleased.”

“They laid out a real road map,” Griffin said.

Benevento said he set the goal for all the cleanup work to be complete in the approximately 30-mile Superfund site by 2024 so that the Butte public could hold him accountable for that goal.

And if he is no longer on the job in 2024, the community can hold the next region administrator accountable for that timeline, he said. Benevento was appointed by President Donald Trump.

Butte-Silver Bow Chief Executive Dave Palmer said he believes the public “will be pleased” once all the details are known and that reaching the agreement this week “brings a little bit of finality” to the process.

“This is a good, comprehensive cleanup, and it insulates the taxpayers,” Palmer said.

Gov. Steve Bullock, who made removing the Parrot tailings a priority two years ago, spoke of the sense of “certainty” this agreement brings.

“Butte has deserved certainty and action for decades, and I could not be more pleased that today, together with the EPA, we are delivering on both,” Bullock said. “The citizens and community of Butte can finally rest assured we are on a path to get the job done once and for all.”

Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said via email that “this deal was a long time coming for Butte.”

“I commend all the parties involved for working together to find a solution. I will hold the EPA accountable to deliver on its word and will work with the folks on the ground to ensure a transparent and efficient cleanup for Butte. The people of Butte America will ultimately be the judge of this agreement,” Tester said in writing.

Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, called the agreement “an important development for the Butte Superfund site.”

“The people of Butte have waited long enough for this milestone. I will continue fighting to ensure Montana Superfund sites make the progress they need,” Daines said via email.

Congressman Greg Gianforte, a Republican, called the announcement “a positive step in the effort to clean up Superfund in Butte.” Benevento gave credit to Montana’s elected officials for EPA’s focused attention on Butte.

Benevento called reaching the agreement not the end, but the beginning. He said that if the agency can’t get to the final agreement with signatures, EPA will issue an order to Atlantic Richfield, so the work will get done one way or another.

Benevento also stressed he wants EPA to do a better job of communicating in a way that works for Butte.

“This presentation is about starting a conversation,” he said. “We won’t be strangers.”