23 January 2007

Managing Warm Springs Ponds: a public meeting

Yesterday afternoon I attended a presentation about ongoing water quality problems with the effluent from Warm Springs Ponds. The ponds are used to treat the polluted water of Silver Bow Creek flowing down from the Butte Superfund site. Just below the ponds, Silver Bow Creek joins with Mill-Willow Creek and Warm Springs Creek to form the Clark Fork River. To the naieve and cursory eye, the ponds look like a natural wetlands. The are not. They are a sophisticated and intensively managed pollution treatment system. Yes, the ponds and associated wetlands support a range of wildlife from the exotic rainbow trout that cruise the depths to the abundance of ospreys that rule the air.

The natural resource amenities of Warm Spring Ponds are difficult to ponder with classical thinking. Birdwatchers and anglers appreciate the area, and on any given day there is likely to be a crowd of anglers fishing the outflow from the ponds, hoping to catch a five pound rainbow shaped like a football. I think of this as a postmodern trout fishery: supported by the stocking of exotic fish, by the heavy additions of lime that precipitate copper and other heavy metals, and by the network of pumps, piping, water quality testing, maintenance, and human operators that make the system work.

And so a meeting about the management of the ponds should be no easier to ponder than the thing in itself that is being managed.

When I first called the local Environmental Protection Agency office to inquire about this meeting, they did not know about it. Then the kindly EPA staff person made some inquiries, and told me where and when the meeting would be held, but they also warned me that it was probably not a public meeting. You see, the meeting was to be held at Arco-British Petroleum's local office. This office is in a sort of gated community, an industrial park with a big fence around it and a guardhouse at the entrance. At the very least, it would probably be necessary for me to stop at the guardhouse, seek permission to enter, and sign in should I be granted entry. The kindly EPA staffer told me, "Heck, I can't even get in there half the time."

A few minutes later the kindly staffer called back and said, well yes, that it was indeed a public meeting. Finding the place, however, was a little like figuring out directions in the rural Northern Kingdom of Vermont where you might be told, "You can't get there from here."

In the case of the Arco-British Petroleum office, maybe it's more like the federal government's notorious Area 51--an area that officially does not exist. For when I looked in the phone book, there was no listing for Arco. There was no listing for Atlantic Richfield. And there was no listing for British Petroleum. Hmmm.... we're dealing with a major global corporation that is on the hook for more than a billion dollars in local damages to the environment, and the corporation's local office is not even in the phone book?

Wow. I was well on my way to a fantastic conspiracy theory. But, as the French say, some stories are so good that they "must" be true (even if they are not).

My mistake, as it turned out. A local Arco-BP office has only recently been established in Butte, and so I found the address when I looked in a recently-minted 2007 phone book. The Arco-BP office is located in the old Kelly Mine yard along Anaconda Road--near the site of the "Bloody Wednesday" massacre, in which 14 striking miners were shot (two died) by Anaconda Company thugs. Today, this area is Arco-BP's gated industrial park--truly a fitting monument to Butte's labor history!

Even without knowing this history, it was a distinctly odd feeling to enter Arco-BP's fenced, private space in order to attend a public meeting. Like the tone of a person's voice or their body language, space carries a rhetorical weight all its own. The rhetorical weight of an Arco-BP conference room is very corporate. Had EPA asked, perhaps CFRTAC could have found a truly public space in order to hold a public meeting. And then there was that rhetorical use of the royal "We" by EPA administrators--the "we" in this case being Arco-BP, EPA, and the various consultants.

Now, don't get me wrong. The EPA administrator that chaired the meeting was very polite, professional, and even pleasant. The public attendees were not patronized or treated with any disrespect. At the same time, however, public communication clearly was not the chief purpose of the meeting.

So there I was, in a little corporate conference room crowded with about 21 people. About half were bonafide members of the public, including a Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee (CFRTAC*) contingent led by technical consultant and enviro-hero Jim Kuipers.

The meeting -- which largely consisted of several technical presentations by consultants -- went well. Dan MacGuire led off with his 2006 macroinvertebrate biomonitoring report on the Upper Clark Fork River Basin. In most respects, benthic macroinvertebrates (mayflies, caddisflies, and other bottom-dwelling stream critters) indicate that water quality has improved greatly since c. 1990. The first improvement came with the construction of the Mill-Willow Creeks bypass and associated cleanup work that removed contaminated material from the flood plain along the Warm Springs Ponds in the early 1990s. The second improvement came c. 1997, when large amounts of water were flushed down Warm Springs Creek from pristine Silver Lake, thus adding a slug of clean water to the upper Clark Fork River.

There was one disturbing data point, however. The ecology of Silver Bow Creek immediately below the ponds has suffered a noticeable decline. This could indicate a significant problem and might be attributable to the increasing levels of arsenic in water released from the ponds. Or, it could simply be an anomalous and unexplainable fluctuation. We can't really know, since the EPA dropped the ball and there is no data from the past several years.**

Arsenic is a problem. Water discharged from the Warm Springs Pond treatment facility exceeds water quality standards for arsenic about seven months of the year--typically June through December. This is also the time of the year when stream flows are generally low and the pH of water in the ponds is very high (10+). The high pH is caused by plant photosynthesis as well as by the addition of lime. Although high pH is great for precipitating the toxic metals that enter the pond, high pH also mobilizes arsenic. Though the increasingly good technical management of the ponds has been very effective in preventing downstream pollution by metals, it is a classic case of unintended consequences. It's a bedrock principle of ecology: YOU CAN NEVER CHANGE JUST ONE THING.

Of course, Arco-BP apologists will argue that arsenic is not so bad. After all, the Madison River has high arsenic levels and it is a productive ecosystem and a great trout stream. But the Madison's arsenic is from hot springs and other natural geological sources. The Clark Fork's arsenic is from mine waste, and Arco-BP is responsible for that pollution.

Furthermore, when we go back to America's Clean Water Act, the intent is clear: America's waters should be swimmable, fishable, and drinkable. Discharge from the ponds violate current drinking water standards for arsenic by a large margin much of the year. When standards drop to 10 parts per billion, the Warm Springs Pond water treatement system will be in violation virtually all of the time. To make matters worse, water from the ponds also moves through the ground water aquifer and enters the Clark Fork River via the Mill-Willow Bypass and other downgradient sites.

Currently, methods for removing arsenic from water and the effect of arsenic on aquatic life are not well understood. If arsenic and ecosytems turns out to be like arsenic and human health, then every study will tend to increae the hazardous consequences of arsenic exposure. Though one might wish more resources were allocated to this effort, the EPA is concerned about and making some effort to study the arsenic problem.

In the bigger picture of the Upper Clark Fork River basin Superfund megasite, there is not much to be done about Warm Springs Ponds. The Record of Decision (ROD) for the ponds was made final nearly 20 years ago. Once the ROD is final, there is very little the public can do to alter -- let alone reopen -- that decision.

In the next decade or so, as Silver Bow Creek is restored, we'll need to decide what to do with Warm Springs Ponds. Beneath the ponds are tens of millions of cubic yards of mine waste and treated sludge. The ponds are, in effect, a huge waste repository. At the same time, they are a weirdly postmodern natural area with natural resource amenities that many people appreciate (see http://fwp.mt.gov/lands/site_280262.aspx). Like Butte, the ponds are probably a Superfund site that will be maintained in perpetuity.

* CFRTAC is a grassroots environmental group funded by the EPA under its mandate to promote public involvement. See www.cfrtac.org.

** Actually, bugs were collected in 2004, though they were stored away without being analysed. EPA hopes to have this analysis completed in the next few months.

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