For nearly 150 years, metal mining has had an enormous impact on the city of Butte. The “Richest Hill on Earth” made fortunes for the “Copper Kings” who controlled the mines during their heyday around World War I; the fortunes, however, didn’t stay in Butte, and today the city sits on an environmental disaster. It’s the site of the largest Superfund cleanup in the country, and home to one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, the infamous Berkeley Pit.
While mining in Butte during the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped fuel the industrial revolution with gold, silver and copper, the practice left devastating contamination of soil, surface water and groundwater in Butte and the stream systems downstream.
While more than $100 million has been spent cleaning up the mess over the last 20 years, the Superfund work is far from over. Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated a controversial “Technical Impracticability” waiver regarding one such area of concern: The Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit is a five-square-mile area that includes the historic city of Butte. At the heart of the OU is the Parrot Tailings mine waste, buried near the Civic Center and the Metro Storm Drain corridor, which was once the historic Silver Bow Creek channel that flowed through town. The EPA’s preferred alternative for dealing with the millions of cubic yards of mine tailings, smelting slag and other wastes is to leave it in place and install a water treatment plant to treat the contaminated groundwater before it’s pumped into Silver Bow Creek.
The EPA’s waiver and preferred alternative have environmental groups, and some public employees, up in arms.
A document released last week by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) says the EPA is “walking away from the nation’s largest Superfund site.”
PEER’s white paper, titled “Cut and Run: EPA Betrays Another Montana Town,” is authored by geologists, hydrologists, hydrogeologists, soil scientists and engineers “who have worked extensively with mine waste characterization and reclamation in western Montana,” according to PEER. The paper’s authors remain anonymous “in order to avoid detracting from the message.”
The 17-page paper criticizes the EPA’s decision to issue a TI waiver and claims the science behind the decision is flawed. It also says it is “completely inappropriate for EPA to be working towards a TI waiver while purportedly going through the public process of selecting a preferred alternative because of the six alternatives, three involve significant removal.”
John Wardell, director of the EPA’s Montana office, says it makes sense for the agency to move toward the TI waiver since that is the EPA’s preferred alternative, although there is no guarantee the waste won’t be removed.
“We have not a made a decision on that issue. That issue only applies to a groundwater aquifer and not the [Butte Priority Soils OU] site as a whole,” says Wardell. “We are in a deliberative process and I’m not going to say which direction we’re going to go, because I don’t know.”
Wardell says the EPA won’t make a final decision until after the state and local governments have weighed in and the public has had an opportunity to provide further evidence.
The PEER white paper alone, he says, is not likely to sway the EPA.
According to the EPA’s proposal, issued last winter and open for public comment until February, the state Department of Environmental Quality believes that the final remedy for Butte should include the removal of the former Parrot Tailings area and other accessible wastes in the Metro Storm Drain. But the EPA says that “removal of these wastes would not restore the groundwater to its beneficial uses,” that “groundwater contamination will persist because there are secondary sources of contamination throughout the alluvial aquifer and because it is unlikely that all wastes could effectively be removed.”
Therefore, the EPA’s preferred alternative for the Butte Priority Soils OU is to issue a ruling of “Technical Impracticability,” for total removal of the Parrot Tailings. The agency believes the best remedy is a “conservatively designed capture and treatment system.”
The authors of the PEER white paper think that’s a bad idea.
According to “Cut and Run,” the EPA is making the TI finding without proper characterization of the tailings and without knowing how fast the contaminants are spreading. The critics of the TI waiver say EPA’s lack of careful characterization violates the agencies own guidelines as well as common sense. Three major problems with the TI waiver, the paper’s authors claim, are looming public health threats, the potential to jeopardize all reclamation work downstream and the economic consequences of leaving toxic waste in place.
According to Wardell, the aquifer in question has never been used as a source of drinking water. The main concern, he says, is that contaminated groundwater is leaching into Silver Bow Creek, which is at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. Wardell says that even if the waste was removed, there is no evidence to suggest that the aquifer could ever return to a safe, usable water source without treatment.
“The nub of the issue is there are folks that would like us to remove the tailings. They think the groundwater system will recover and could be used as a drinking water source,” says Wardell. “We don’t think that’s the case.”
Therefore, he says, the EPA believes the best alternative is to treat the groundwater in perpetuity, with treatment to be paid for by the responsible parties, which include BP/ARCO, the Berkeley Pit’s owner.
In a press release issued last week introducing the white paper, Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, noted that the nomination of Susan Bodine to head the EPA’s Superfund program is still pending before the U.S. Senate.
Ruch told the Independent that Montana’s congressional delegation could make political hay over the EPA’s handling of the Butte Priority Soils OU.
“The Montana senate delegation could be influential in the results of that confirmation,” says Ruch. “We know that the conduct of the EPA in Libby has been a factor in the debate over Superfund. We think they could expand the debate to what’s going on in Butte.”
Ruch says the TI waiver would be a bailout for those responsible for environmental disaster in the first place.
“EPA’s plan to let the site be cleaned over geologic time condemns Butte to centuries of contamination,” says Ruch. “EPA is doing BP/ARCO a huge favor that will save the company shareholders millions and leave taxpayers holding the bag.”