20 April 2007

America's Largest Superfund Site: Butte, Montana

Buttians like superlatives, whether or not they are factual: "Richest Hill on Earth" (it wasn't--that honor goes to Butte's sister-city Chuquicamata); "Butte, America" (an effort to stress the national importance of the city, as opposed to it being just another two-bit Montana town); "A city of more than 100,000 people" (no, the census data indicates that the population peaked around 1920 at just over 40,000, with a total county population of about 60,000).

But there is one area where Butte is the undisputed champ: Superfund.

America's largest Superfund site (1) begins with Butte in western Montana at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. The upper Clark Fork River Basin is truly a Superfund megasite, taking in three major Superfund sites (each a megasite in its own right) and numerous "operable units."(2) Because the environmental and human health damages in this area were all caused by the mining and smelting operations of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, this complex of Superfund sites should be considered as a whole.


The Environmental Protection Agency defines a megasite if "the total costs of removal and remedial actions will exceed $50 million." (3) Most of the dozen or so operable units within the Upper Clark Fork River Basin megasite complex have a price tag exceeding $100 million, and the total cost will exceed $1 billion by a wide margin.


Some of the major sites and operable units within the Clark Fork River complex, along with the year in which they made the EPA's National Priorities List, include:
  • Anaconda Smelter-Community Soils site (300 square miles), listed in 1983

  • Stream Side Tailings site (26-mile long Silver Bow Creek near Butte), listed in 1983
  • Milltown Dam site (2.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments), listed in 1983

  • Berkeley Pit operable unit, an open pit copper mine in uptown Butte (more than 30 billion gallons of highly toxic, low-pH water), added to Butte’s Stream Side Tailings Site in 1984

  • Clark Fork River operable unit (more than 120 stream miles) above Milltown Dam to the Warm Springs Ponds, added to the Milltown Site in 1985

  • Butte Priority Soils operable unit, in the uptown area of the town (12.4 million cubic yards of waste spread throughout urban neighborhoods), added to the Stream Side Tailings Site in 1987
To give you some idea of the extent of this area, consider the map of the megasite comples (below), with a superimposed outline of the state of Connecticut.


The EPA has reached a Record of Decision for most of the operable units within the Clark Fork River complex of sites. The estimated cost to achieve remedy under these RODs is as follows. Keep in mind that approximately $700 million has already been spent on emergency actions and various studies.
  • ROD for the Berkeley Pit: $110 million.
  • ROD for the Butte Priority Soils: $110 million to $157 million, and in addition to this British Petroleum-ARCO (the responsible party) cut a side deal with the town of Butte for $49 million.
  • ROD for Silver Bow Creek (Stream Side Tailings): $80 million, included as part of a $215 million settlement by British Petroleum-ARCO with Montana's Natural Resource Damage Program. On Silver Bow Creek, remedy and restoration are being accomplished as an integrated effort.
  • ROD for the Clark Fork River has an estimated price tag of $120 million.
  • ROD for Milltown Dam has an estimated price tag of $139.5 million; as with SBCr, remedy and restoration will be intergrated.

The remedy for the Upper Clark Fork River Superfund complex is a big job! It is, for the most part, just getting underway. Work at remaining sites such as the Clark Fork River should begin soon--once British Petroleum-ARCO quits squabbling with Montana and the EPA about its penny-for-penny obligations. A few sites, such as Butte's "Westside Soils," have not yet been studied and characterized. In Butte, Superfund is a growth industry!

(1) The Hudson River Superfund site is sometimes erroneously referred to as "America's Largest Superfund site," but it consists merely of a narrow 200-mile long strip of river with a total estimated remedy cost of "only" $500 million. At about 1500 square miles, the Silver Valley/Coeur d'Alene (Idaho) site is also a contender, but the estimated remedy cost is "only" $359 million.
(2) An operable unit is a term used by the Environmental Protection Agency to consider a site that is dealt with as an intergral unit when developing remedy (or clean up) actions.

(3) Elizabeth Southerland, "Megasites: presentation for the NACEPT--Superfund Subommittee," at http://www.epa.gov/oswer/docs/naceptdocs/megasites.pdf.

4 comments:

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