04 December 2006

Environmental Clean-up and Social Restoration

Winter is settling in over the upper Clark Fork. We have put the hunting rifles away and it’s time for the Thanksgiving/Winter Solstice/New Year’s round of parties and feasts. With the major Superfund decisions behind us, it’s also time to pause and think about where we are at in this environmental process.

All across America, people are beginning to link environmental clean-up with cultural renewal. Like grief, we seem to experience this process in stages. First there is denial: “Say it ain’t so, Marcus! Surely Butte will always be the richest hill on earth?” Next, there is industrial-history-as-Toxiland-theme-park: “OK, kids, let’s ride the roller coaster at Copper Mountain, and then we’ll head over to the Mine Tunnel of Terror.” At some point, reality takes over. We are indeed living in a post-industrial world, and the future will not look like the past.

Butte, I think, is tottering at this point. It’s a scary place to be. We need to cope with whatever second-rate clean-up we get from EPA and Arco, beg for a few more scraps, and spread scarce dollars over a big landscape.

EPA is allowing Arco to leave most toxic waste in place—you know, “cover it up” instead of “clean it up.”

Most waste will be capped and then protected with fencing and other institutional controls. These postmodern fields will be a monument to our industrial past, and must be protected and maintained in perpetuity.

Toxic house and attic dust will be cleaned up on a limited basis, and only if home owners insist. Never mind the routine roofing, rewiring, and attic renovation jobs that go on everyday and cause toxic exposure for contractors and residents.

Only time will tell whether Butte’s cultural renewal can take place despite such limitations.

Butte-Silver Bow will likely get a few more scraps from its side-deal with Arco. In exchange for the county’s complicity in the proposed Superfund remedy, the county gets 49 million dollars for things like historic preservation, health studies, and the in perpetuity treatment of contaminated water and maintenance of waste caps. The county hopes to make a million dollars or so per year as interest, available over the next one hundred years. Some of this money will be available for redevelopment.

Like the money available from the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program, these Arco trust fund dollars could be used for cultural renewal.

A new citizen’s group, the Butte Restoration Alliance, is forming. The group will advise Butte-Silver Bow government on projects for the community.

We should maintain a healthy critical attitude toward this process. Projects funded by the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program might give us a model of what to expect. Projects have fallen roughly into three categories.

In the first category, we simply fix the leaky pipes left by a century of corporate neglect. New waterlines for Butte and Anaconda fall under this category.

In the second category, we enhance public access to natural resources. The Butte-Anaconda greenway and Milltown pedestrian bridge fall under this category, as do acquisition projects that convert private holdings to public amenities. By simply connecting people with nature we hope to restore an appreciation for and the use of natural resources.

In the third category, we actually restore damaged resources. Projects that rebuild streams to function naturally and support native fish are a fine example of this. Instead of regarding nature as an economic resource to be converted into dollars, nature is a sustainable resource—something that we can become a part of without wrecking or significantly altering. There have not been many such projects.

But here we have a key criterion for authentic environmental restoration and cultural renewal: sustainability. If our activities impoverish the local ecosystem or if our restoration of natural resources requires heavy-handed maintenance in perpetuity, then we have failed at our task. A restored culture will require citizen participation and educational programs, as well as day-to-day activities wherein we live our goals. Shopping at the local farmers’ market, catching a wild trout in the river that runs through it, and attending the local arts festival: all are simple but tangible indications that environmental restoration and cultural renewal are succeeding hand-in-hand.

The twentieth century was the era of non-sustainable industrial growth and environmental pollution. Let this new century be the era of restoration and renewal.

For more news about the Butte Priority Soils remedy and other Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at www.cfrtac.org.

From Butte to Missoula, we deserve a clean, healthy, and accessible Clark Fork River. It’s your river. Wade in, and help make the future.

[this post is a modified version of a KUFM radio commentary I did on behalf of CFRTAC]

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