Diesel fumes waft through the air as lumbering machines toil between contaminated barrows in what was once the Milltown Reservoir.
With the water now drained, contractors have cut the exposed lakebed into a bizarre network of earthworks—each pile of dirt uniquely textured and imbued with its own toxic properties. For the construction crews hired by cleanup officials to remove copper mining byproduct from the Clark Fork River floodplain, this is the meticulous part of cleanup, the exacting part.
Standing on a bluff overlooking the site, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) project manager Russ Forba breaks into a technical soliloquy on the activity below. He gestures toward one particularly large berm that the agency constructed in 2007, built to temporarily shield contaminate piles from the rising Clark Fork River. Forba boasts that the structure was engineered to withstand flows of more than 25,000 cubic feet per second. The river that season, however, never approached half that volume.
An irritated Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO)—the British Petroleum subsidiary legally liable for Milltown’s cleanup costs—grumbled that the multi-million-dollar berm was grossly over engineered. “There were some unhappy campers down there,” Forba wryly jokes.
Forba keeps his musings subtle, but nonetheless exhibits a colloquial mind a cut away from the archetypal regulatory bureaucrat. Affable and direct, the project manager has earned a reputation in the Bonner-Milltown community as a trustworthy source on the chemicals that occupied the reservoir for a century. “He knows what he’s talking about, and he knows when he doesn’t know,” says longtime local activist Gary Matson.
Equally palpable are Forba’s qualities as a showman, put on full display March 28 when he emceed the dam breaching for a crowd gathered on the same bluff. Those talents prove valuable in Milltown, where the $120 million project draws plenty of attention from neighboring Missoula, the state’s largest media market and home to its largest progressive voting block. More than just another cleanup site, Milltown offers a stage for the EPA to impress a critical audience—and the performance even has a storybook ending.
“My prediction is the aquifer should return to drinking water standards in less than 10 years,” Forba confidently replies when asked if the basin could be recontaminated. “Even if there’s another high flow event, this is clearly not going to be a place where much sediment will deposit.”
Simply looking at Milltown, Superfund virgins might get the impression that this is how it usually works. But in reality, the success of the dam removal project belies a trend of ugly compromises and outright failures that surrounds other Montana Superfund sites.
In the wake of toxic waste calamites like New York’s Love Canal, the federal government established the Superfund program in 1980 to pay for industrial restoration in the event that responsible parties could not be found or held immediately liable. Politicians have characterized the Superfund in many ways over the years, but few have accused it of being a model of efficiency and effectiveness.
“The Superfund has been a disaster,” President Bill Clinton told a Detroit crowd in 1993. “All the money goes to the lawyers, and none of the money goes to clean up the problems that it was designed to clean up.”
Almost from its inception, the EPA’s flagship program came to embody the ultimate in bureaucratic wastefulness. In 1992, government audits revealed that the agency spent an average $326 dollars per individual work hour at Superfund sites during 1988. Adjust for inflation and that figure comes in at just under $600 per hour today. Subsequent congressional reports note that the situation has not improved. It fact, it’s probably getting worse.
“To the heads of the EPA, their mission tends to be the most important thing in government,” says North Carolina State economist Richard Stroup, who studied Superfund politics at Montana State earlier this decade. “If they can take $100 million dollars and put it toward something they’re doing—even if it’s worth 10 percent or 1 percent of that value to society—then, of course, it’s a no-brainer. They’ll do it. They’ll take it.”
Not long after assuming office, President George Bush drastically slowed the process of identifying new Superfund sites in an effort to make the unwieldy program more streamlined. The strategy didn’t work. Today experts say the Superfund program is worse off than ever.
“It is absolutely outrageous for the Bush administration to issue a report to the American people telling them Superfund cleanups are moving forward,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., railed in 2004 after seeing that year’s EPA budget. During the prior year, contaminated sites in at least 30 states had received no funding, he complained.
As it turned out, 2004 marked a dubious year for the Superfund and the EPA in general. With bills for the Iraq War piling up, the president took the first of several major hacks from the agency budget. The cuts escalated until 2007, when the federal government slashed more than $400 million in EPA funds for the following fiscal year. Meanwhile, a 23-year-old, multi-billion-dollar agency trust had gone insolvent. The Superfund, effectively, lost its fund.
When Congress established the program in 1980, it imposed a series of taxes on industries deemed responsible for the nation’s environmental crisis. The so-called “Polluter Pays” sources included a crude-oil tax on petrochemical refiners, a tonnage levy on manufacturers using toxic chemicals and a general excise fee on corporate America. For 15 years, the revenue generated went into an interest-bearing account to finance Superfund cleanups.
Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath says the bankroll allowed work to move forward on sites that would have instead waited during lengthy litigation. The petrochemical lobbies, however, were less stoked. The industry fought vigorously throughout the ’80s and early ’90s to see the fee system repealed.
“If I’m a petrochemical company and I’ve never been involved in a Superfund site, how is that a Polluter Pays tax?” asks Angela Logomasini of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an advocacy organization representing industrial business interests in Washington. “The assumption is that anybody in that industry is a polluter, which is fundamentally wrong.”
The pleas of oilmen found sympathetic ears in a GOP-controlled Congress, which allowed the Polluter Pays taxes to expire in 1995, causing the Superfund account to run dry nine years later. Since the fund went under, the financial burden has shifted to the general public, whose taxpayer contributions to Superfund operations continue to climb—surpassing $1.3 billion in 2006, a five-fold increase from the mid-’90s, according to data published by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Forced to reduce its expenditures, the Superfund program started scaling back individual cleanup projects. Reports of EPA corner cutting since the trust fund’s demise have cropped up so frequently that a watchdog group, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), created a nationwide database that identifies 114 Superfund sites across the country where toxic and carcinogenic heath hazards are, by government admittance, not under control.
“The most alarming thing that came out of analyzing this was seeing how the Superfund was diverting money from hundreds of Superfund sites,” says CPI analyst Steve Carpinelli, referring to a 2007 Senate discovery that the EPA had horded $709 million in special bank accounts with little oversight on how the money was being spent.
From a purely environmental perspective, the Superfund has never been less productive than under the Bush administration. From 1995 to 2000, the EPA moved 474 project sites from the National Priorities List to completed status, an average of 79 per year. The agency, comparatively, finished an average of 39 cleanups per year between 2001 and 2007. If previous seasons are any indication, the EPA will be lucky to meet this year’s goal of 30.
In light of everything that had happened, hopes of reinstating the Polluter Pays taxes ran high during the 2006 election season. However, beltway insiders say the topic has spurred little discussion since Democrats won control of Congress. It’s an odd turn of events from the days of Republican legislative control, when numerous ranking Democrats slammed the Bush administration for allowing the Superfund trust to collapse. The Senate minority tried reinstating the tax in 2004—when there was really no hope of it—but the new congressional majorities haven’t lifted a finger for the Superfund since.
Some Washington insiders say party leaders lack confidence they can rally the numbers to break a certain presidential veto. Others explain that the Superfund simply got shoved off stage.
“Inside the beltway, there’s been this huge focus on the war. As a result, there’s been a limited pool of resources for domestic priorities,” says Sen. Lautenberg’s legislative aide, Chris Bender. “Another reason is, back in 2004, Congress wasn’t as focused on combating global warming or dealing with the nation’s energy problems as it is today.”
Darker interpretations emphasize the volume of industrial contributions in many Democratic campaign coffers. A CPI report shows BP-ARCO—a single corporate entity linked to 110 Superfund sites nationwide—spent more than $33 million in lobbying expenses and direct political contributions between 1998 and 2005.
Conservatives have their own explanation. They say the EPA’s Superfund has grown into the greatest of American bureaucratic monstrosities, and Democrats, consequently, don’t want to be seen throwing more money down the chute.
With policy makers alternately blaming and ducking, or waxing philosophical on situations that have not yet come to pass, the issue of deadly industrial pollution seems to be slipping off the national radar. But in places like Butte and Libby, it’s still pretty damn hard to ignore.
Tucked away on the second floor of Montana Tech’s Engineering Hall in Butte, Pat Munday’s office somewhat resembles an environmental disaster. A thick coat of government documents, technical reports and journal articles covers absolutely everything—even the space on the floor where his dog peacefully sleeps.
A member of a local technical advisory group, the idiosyncratic historian has for years studied the political and social dynamics surrounding Superfund operations in the hope of assembling a sort of activist’s manual—a how-to on avoiding Butte’s fate. Munday argues ARCO and its loss-management practices are steering the town’s environmental future—with the cash-strapped EPA often occupying the passenger seat.
“ARCO is very good at finding ways to save itself money. They are masters of it,” the historian says. “They sometimes use the word reclamation, instead of remediation, to describe what they’re doing. It means making things look good on the surface but leaving the most expensive and serious stuff behind.”
For a corporation looking to save money on environmental restoration, doing nothing makes the most business sense. In Butte, ARCO has honed inaction to an exhibition quality art. All around the town, reservoirs of ground pollution sit undisturbed—often fenced off and frequently marked with historical placards offering a whitewashed narrative on Butte mining.
In certain situations, the direct public health consequences of leaving waste in place cannot be contested, but that doesn’t necessarily change the practice. In Butte, the agency has granted ARCO “technical waivers” for many troubled areas, but the one that most drew the ire of local environmentalists was the Parrot Pile—a massive mound of mine tailings smack dab in the middle of town.
After convincing the EPA that removing these point sources of contamination would not restore the town’s highly polluted aquifer, ARCO paid the consolidated city/county of Butte-Silver Bow $49 million in 2006 to absolve the company of its remaining liability. The county put $34 million aside for future maintenance of Butte soils—a sum insufficient to remove the Parrot should commissioners change their mind.
Not surprisingly, water quality is Butte’s biggest problem. Shortly after Butte’s Superfund cleanup began, the EPA began restoring Silver Bow Creek and other Clark Fork River headwaters, previously poisoned by tailings and totally incapable of supporting plant life. Hydrologists say those channels have already been recontaminated by the run-off from waste piles like the Parrot.
“It’s tremendous,” Montana Bureau of Mining and Geology senior researcher John Metesh says of some of the local copper measurements. “We’re talking a couple orders of magnitude above drinking water standards.”
Even with all the right remediation steps, Metesh says, it would take 60-100 years to get all toxic loads under par in the Butte aquifer. The EPA believes it can’t be done. That’s why pollution sources like the Parrot were simply contained, according to head of Montana Superfund operations John Wardell. “We decided that it couldn’t be cleaned up, so it doesn’t make sense to spend a huge amount of money trying,” he says.
The Parrot Pile is an example of what the EPA calls an “in-perpetuity solution,” a sort of non-remedy requiring eternal human attention. Neither ARCO nor the EPA ever plans to clean up any of Butte’s truly big problems—it’s far cheaper to try and treat the runoff.
Critics respond that what’s cheap doesn’t work. The Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC), a conservation group working in Butte, argues waste-in-place remedies like the Parrot Pile are ineffective because more than 60 percent of the EPA’s efforts to seal the pollution with an earthen cap have failed. “These chemicals are toxic enough to be dealt with by the Superfund, but in the EPA’s weird form of logic, they’re not toxic enough to get rid of,” says MEIC board member John Ray.
Project managers working in the groundwater basin admit the strategy has seen its share of problems, including spiking arsenic levels during high-flow seasons. Treatment facilities, like the Warm Springs Ponds west of Butte, were designed specifically to capture metals and reduce arsenic concentrations slightly. Certain amounts of toxic chemicals, experts say, will be slipping down the watershed forever.
“The river is never going to be squeaky clean,” says Clark Fork Coalition hydrologist Chris Brick. “If there was something like a 100-year flood or a 500-year flood, we would see a definite impact.”
In a town full of in-perpetuity solutions, the ultimate example sits on a hillside above Butte, pressed against the Continental Divide. The Berkeley Pit began filling in 1982 when ARCO ignored the warnings of miners and turned off the facility’s subterranean water pumps. Now holding an acidic lake of copper, lead, arsenic and cadmium, the pit’s waters rise annually and, without intervention, will hit the water table and spill into nearby creeks by the end of the next decade.
Yet, to return the Berkeley Pit and its surrounding basin to a natural state would require an untold sum. “Billions,” says the EPA’s Forba, who serves as the project manager for the site. “There are thousands of miles of mine shafts that would have to be backfilled.”
Instead, the EPA forced ARCO to secure bonds guaranteeing that a recently constructed pumping station could run indefinitely, theoretically preventing the Pit from overflowing. However, on a geologic timeline, the Berkeley Pit pumps should stop any moment now. This raises the question—what happens after ARCO?
“It’s a real concern. Most people have trouble looking 200 or 500 years ahead and seeing the effects of what we do now,” Wardell laments. “Maybe the other thing we have trouble grasping is how new technologies, that I can’t now imagine, will change how we do business.”
Whatever the case, it’s becoming less likely that EPA scientists will yield such breakthroughs anytime soon. Some of the recent budget cuts have drastically reduced research and development funds and forced the closure of several agency research facilities.
On Feb. 23, a student at Asa Wood Elementary School in Libby went to a teacher with a handful of insulation that had leaked from a hole in the wall of the 60-year-old building. It was vermiculite, a locally sourced material contaminated with a particularly virulent form of asbestos called Libby Amphibole.
Within an hour of the discovery, EPA crews rolled in to patch the leak and assure the community that the material, safely contained, poses only minor health risks to local school children.
Libby schools superintendent Kirby Maki says he trusts the government’s assessment of the school grounds as safe. But as a simple district employee, he adds, his options are fairly limited.
“You want to make sure the surgeon knows where the gall bladder is. Things have been done wrong before,” Maki says. “Maybe Libby wasn’t the best place to build—nothing I can do about that.”
The superintendent actually has something else in mind. He wants federal, state or polluter money for a new school before the EPA loads its trunk and moves on. To simply clean the asbestos out of Asa Wood—not to mention the Plummer Head Start School, where contamination has been established by EPA tests—would cost “hundreds of thousands, if not millions,” Maki says. The district just doesn’t have the coin.
In this year’s $250 million cleanup settlement with bankrupt W.R. Grace—the Delaware-based chemical company responsible for the town’s contamination—U.S. attorneys marked $11 million for long-term cleanup expenditures. The figure was based on the EPA’s admittedly inadequate scientific understanding of Libby contamination. If that reckoning should drastically worsen, as some expect, that won’t be enough for Libby schools, let alone the hundreds of other properties that might have to be re-cleaned.
The bankruptcy outcome may seem like a disappointment, but environmental law experts were actually shocked the government got that much. “To the credit of the EPA, they got in the door before Grace filed for bankruptcy,” Montana Attorney General McGrath says.
Critics of the EPA seem to make one common concession—its definitely getting better at waging court battles.
In 2005, shortly after Tucson-based copper producer ASARCO managed to shed more than $1 billion in environmental cleanup liability by declaring bankruptcy, the Government Accounting Office published a report slamming the EPA for letting responsible parties so easily evade enforcement. To date, ASARCO remains the most egregious example of a bankruptcy shimmying act perpetrated by corporate America on the EPA, though, despite the EPA’s recent court success, W.R. Grace could still break that record.
Adding to the uncertainty in Libby is a particularly conspicuous hole in the scientific data. The town’s asbestos-related death toll seems to clearly indicate Libby Amphibole is not your garden-variety asbestos, but just how much greater of a danger it poses remains unknown.
“The EPA still has no data of the relative toxicity of Libby Amphibole,” says former agency toxicologist Gerry Henningsen, who believes it to be hundreds of times more dangerous than more common asbestos strains. “In Libby, you can see this material taking its toll on the population.”
Agency officials say a risk assessment report aimed at once-and-for-all defining the health hazards associated with the Libby Amphibole exposure won’t arrive until at least the end of 2010. But, by then, the project will likely have burned through the equivalent of its Grace awards and still face the possibility of an expensive do-over on the horizon.
Henningsen thinks the risk assessment findings could be incredibly expensive—that is, if the science is honest. If the study confirms his worst suspicions about the carcinogenic properties of Amphibole, it would likely force the EPA to revisit work that’s already been done to clean up more thoroughly and perhaps even expand the scope of project to encompass new areas.
Whatever costs incurred by the Libby cleanup above and beyond the settlement amount will likely come from taxpayer-filled EPA coffers, with the state and local government absorbing some of the long-term expenditures. Libby project manager Paul Peronard admits that if the EPA has to go back, the price of remediation could soar.
“Absolutely there’s a possibility we might have to go back—I don’t think we ever said there wasn’t,” Peronard says. “Let’s say the worst of the numbers come out and we can’t clean up Libby—that we can’t measure low enough that the risks are always going to be high enough—and the only answer is to move everybody. You’re looking at another $400-500 million to do that. Now that’s a worst-case view.”
Even if it doesn’t go that far, the final bill for Libby could still wrap several times around the settlement amount. Lower estimates for the total cost hover around $400 million with a ceiling slightly harder to gauge. “It’s feasible to think it could cost a billion or more,” Henningsen says.
For Libby residents, the ultimate fear is that the town itself could end up turning into one of those infamous EPA in-perpetuity solutions. Backing up their cynicism are the countless number of times they’ve been told one thing about the town’s contamination only to discover another.
Shortly after Gov. Judy Martz fired Montana’s one and only “silver bullet,” skipping the typical EPA multi-year ribbon of red tape, officials promised a three-year project costing roughly $150 million. Seven years and more than $170 million later, critics wonder why Libby is still such a political morass.
“I have to say, in retrospect, clearly I was off base. At that point in time, we figured on putting $50 million a year into Libby. Boy, that changed pretty quickly—we typically get a third of that,” Peronard says.
Libby’s problems are significant, but in the consciousness of most Americans, they remain safely quarantined within the remote frontier town. However, if the risk assessment comes back with a frightening new understanding of the dangers of Libby Amphibole, that comfortable distance suddenly closes. What would that mean for the millions of homes insulated with W.R. Grace vermiculite? What would it cost to implement a comprehensive, nationwide removal program? Could it even be done?
As the number of active Superfund sites continues to grow, how policymakers choose to address the uncertain future of current cleanup projects will eventually take on national significance. In the meantime, between Butte’s poisons-in-perpetuity and Libby’s deadly dust, Montanans already know the score; without systemic or budgetary reform, the EPA’s Superfund can no longer serve as the lone buoy for drowning environmental and public health interests.
The state attorney general argues that one way that Montana can adapt is by becoming more proactive in pursuing legal action against polluters before they declare bankruptcy. With federal dollars becoming scarcer for individual projects, McGrath says, state settlements under environmental law could constitute an increasingly important avenue to recoup public expenditures.
Montana’s $37 million settlement with ASARCO on the Mike Horse Dam project earlier this year serves as an encouraging example of state government going directly after a corporation. Still, McGrath reports, the strategy hasn’t yet gained national popularity.
“There aren’t a lot of states that have pursued [Superfund] cases. It surprises me, really, that it hasn’t been used more often,” he says.
Yet, Republican lawmakers, oil companies and free-market advocates question the wisdom of relying on courts as the solution. They advocate scaling back the Superfund program through extensive reform—a notion that has gained some ground throughout the previous two administrations. Republican lawmakers attempted at several points during the Bush presidency to restructure the program. In all but one limited case, the efforts succumbed to special interest squabbling.
“Superfund has always been such a hot political issue. Everybody wants to see it reformed, but nobody can agree on how,” says industry lobbyist Logomasini. “Everybody is trying to shift the liability to somebody else. Everybody is trying to get their piece.”
For conservationists, the only reasonable long-term solution is to reinvest in the Superfund by reinstating the Polluter Pays taxes and restoring the trust fund. The issue has found a place in the presidential debate, with Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain fixed at opposite ends on the debate on whether to reanimate the controversial fee system.
“One of the good things is that, in Montana, a majority of the Superfund sites have a responsible party. Of course, that could change,” Wardell says. “I don’t see the system going insolvent. I’m hopeful that the EPA leadership and the congressional leadership will make the right choices.”
For that to happen, Montana’s delegation, with two of the country’s biggest, nastiest messes on their home turf, may eventually have to make a move.
Shortly after the Asa Wood incident, Sen. Max Baucus released an official statement saying “heads should roll at the EPA” for allowing children to remain at risk in Libby.
Libby school Super-intendent Maki subsequently asked Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, for an appropriation to replace the deteriorating school, but says he’s gotten nowhere.
“If it’s a terrible thing—if kids are being exposed—then do something about it,” Maki challenges.
The Superfund’s problems require a more comprehensive remedy, but perhaps the same sentiment applies.