Monday, March 8, 2010

The EPA Take a Look Back at the
Last 5 Years of Butte-Area Clean-Up

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and its consultants from CDM, are in the midst of a mandated Five-Year Review of Superfund sites stretching from the city of Butte down Silver Bow Creek as far as the Warm Springs Ponds. The review is a regular checkup on a Superfund site to ensure that clean-up decisions continue to protect people and the environment. Given the number of environmental issues at play in the Butte area, from capped mine dumps on the Butte Hill to signs of recontamination in Silver Bow Creek to the still-untouched West Side Soils area, the review committee will be busy. The review is expected to be completed by September 2010.

In addition to talking with on-site workers and local officials, the review committee is also interviewing Butte citizens to get their take on how environmental clean-up efforts in the area have succeeded or fallen short. The Citizens Technical Environmental Committee (CTEC), Butte's EPA-funded and citizen-led community Technical Assistance Group, recently held two public meetings on February 24 and March 3 to provide the public with information about the Five-Year Review process, the status of Butte-area Superfund sites, and to collect comments from the public.

At the Feb. 24 meeting at the Butte Public Library, Dr. John Ray, a Montana Tech Liberal Studies Professor, discussed what is known as the Butte Priority Soils Superfund site, which includes the urban areas of Uptown Butte. Contamination a the site includes historic mine waste, mine tailings, and residential soils and dust related to the area's mining history. Contaminants of concern include heavy metals such as lead and mercury and other toxins such as arsenic.

Ray was highly critical of EPA-led clean-up efforts in this area. Ray stated that the EPA decision to leave the "waste in place" by capping rather than removing mine waste has resulted in capped dumps that require ongoing maintenance to prevent the failure of the caps and the exposure of waste. Because of the urban nature of the area, exposed mine waste could potentially impact human health. According to Ray, the majority of mine dump caps have failed. Capping generally involves covering exposed mine waste with 18 inches of topsoil that is then seeded and monitored for erosion issues. Butte-Silver Bow county annually evaluates and repairs these caps, with the expenses paid by ARCO, the EPA mandated responsible party for the site.

Ray also criticized the EPA decision to fence-off or otherwise restrict access to many environmentally damaged sites in the Uptown, preventing local residents from accessing such areas and being exposed to wastes. Ray particularly emphasized environmental justice as an important component of any Butte clean-up, noting that the majority of those living in the Superfund area fall below the poverty line or have below-average income. Ray noted that the EPA has a mandate to consider environmental justice. EPA personnel on hand at the meeting did not agree with Ray's assessment of environmental clean-up on the Butte Hill.

(Photo above shows a capped Butte mine dump in the foreground as evaluators assess the site, and in the background uncapped mine dumps can be seen behind the fence of the Mountain Con mine yard.)

At the same meeting, Ian MacGruder, a consultant from Kirk Environmental working with CTEC, delivered a presentation about the clean-up of Silver Bow Creek, the Warm Springs Ponds, and the Westside Soils, an area to the north and west of Uptown Butte that is listed as a Superfund site due to the presence of numerous mine dumps. No action has been taken at the Westside Soils site to date. EPA considered it a low-priority because no people live in the area, though it is popular for recreation.

MacGruder discussed the success of the Silver Bow Creek restoration, which was led by the State Department of Environmental Quality in conjunction with EPA. That project has been largely successful in removing historic mine wastes from the creek bed and floodplain. The ecosystem seems to be on the road to recovery, and brook, rainbow and native west slope cutthroat trout have been reported during Fish, Wildlife and Parks annual electrofish monitoring of the once-decimated creek. Restoration of the creek is still ongoing in the Anaconda and Durant Canyon areas. (Photo above shows historic tailings deposits on Silver Bow Creek. This site, near Miles Crossing and Durant Canyon, has since been restored; the tailings pictured here now reside in the Opportunity Ponds, aka BP-ARCO Waste Repository.)

Removed Silver Bow Creek wastes are transferred by rail to the Opportunity Ponds, also known as the BP-Arco Waste Repository. The Repository, a former tailings pond for the Anaconda Reduction Works and Washoe Smelter, already holds millions of tons of historic wastes, and wastes removed from Silver Bow Creek and the Milltown site near Missoula have been transferred there, increasing the total volume of waste at the site by a few percent. (Photo above shows an aerial view of the Opportunity Ponds site, which is roughly 5 square miles. In some places, mine wastes are 40+ feet deep. The yellow color comes from the tailings themselves; they are toxic to vegetation, so few plants grow, although revegetation efforts are ongoing at the site.)

Recent data has shown that some contaminants from the Butte Hill in the form of sediments are reaching the restored Silver Bow Creek. It is likely that additional action on the Butte Hill and continued monitoring and management of contaminated Butte groundwater will alleviate this recontamination in the future. For the time being, contaminants mainly flush down the restored reach of the creek to the Warm Springs Ponds.

The Warm Springs Ponds, another former Anaconda Company waste management site, were created to capture contaminants from Silver Bow Creek, preventing them from reaching the Clark Fork River. The site has been extremely successful in that regard, and has also become an excellent habitat for waterfowl and abnormally large trout. Future plans for the management of the Warm Springs Ponds, however, are somewhat murky. There is also a lingering arsenic issue at the ponds; lime is added to Silver Bow Creek water to cause metals present in the water to settle out in the ponds by reducing the acidity of the water. This reduction in acidity has the unfortunate side effect of mobilizing arsenic, and data indicates that arsenic levels flowing out of the ponds into the Clark Fork River are higher than expected. As long as no one drinks from the Clark Fork, this should have little effect on human health, although the arsenic issue will have to be addressed in the future.

EPA Remedial Project Manager Roger Hoogerheide responded to the presentations by noting that, while in the past the Five-Year Review process has been something of a rubber-stamp formality, the current EPA administration has instructed agency personnel to treat the Five-Year Review seriously and thoroughly as a means to improve ongoing clean-up efforts.

When asked about the relative scarcity of discussions of the Five-Year Review in local media, Hoogerheide agreed that there was more the EPA could do to inform and involve the community. The ongoing citizen interviews are a large part of the EPA's increased public relations efforts on this Five-Year Review.

The Mar. 3 meeting at the Butte Chamber Visitors Center featured the same presentations, although for this meeting the Silver Bow Creek/Warm Springs Ponds presentation was delivered by Montana Tech Society and Technology Professor Pat Munday. The community discussion was somewhat more lively at this meeting. Most citizens present expressing frustration with the pace of Butte-area clean-up and the difficulty in finding answers to Superfund-related questions and in participating in area Superfund-related programs like the Multi-Pathway Residential Metals Abatement Program Plan. That program is designed to mitigate potentially harmful exposure of residents to sources of lead, arsenic, and mercury contamination. EPA personnel at the meeting again expressed a renewed commitment to public outreach to ensure that local residents are connected to and informed about ongoing clean-up efforts.

Local citizens are encouraged to comment on the clean-up of the Butte environment. Written comments can be mailed to:
Roger Hoogerheide
Remedial Project Manager EPA Montana Office
10 W. 15th St.
Helena, MT 59626

For more information on the Five-Year Review, call Wendy Thomi, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator, toll free at 1-866-457-2690

(Photo above shows historic mining and smelting in the city of Butte, which accounts for the contamination we see and manage today.)