25 March 2008

Clark Fork Superfund: If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail?

[This blog entry is a revised version of a commentary that originally aired on KUFM/Montana Public Radio on behalf of the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee.]

Springtime in the Rockies. Another St Paddy’s Day in Butte is behind us. Butte’s Silver Bow Creek is rising as snow pack melts under the warm afternoon sun. Normally, we like to see those high spring flows. They are part of a natural cycle for our streams, and beneficial effects range from creating spawning habitat for trout to stimulating cottonwood seed germination.

In the case of Silver Bow Creek, spring run-off is not so good. Recall that Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program (through the Department of Environmental Quality or DEQ) is spending about three million dollars per mile to cleanup and restore 24 miles of Silver Bow Creek. Much of this money is for dredging and removing stream sediments high in toxic heavy metals. You know, from the days when the Anaconda Copper Mining Company used the environment as a free garbage dump.

Recently released data show that Silver Bow Creek is being recontaminated—probably by run-off from the Butte hill. It’s not that spring run-off is to blame, exactly. Rather, it is Arco-British Petroleum and the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s a serious problem. Copper is a good proxy for all of the other heavy metals and arsenic that are part of this recontamination problem. According to EPA, the maximum “safe” ecotoxicity level for copper in stream sediments is 34 milligrams per kilogram. The copper levels of recently deposited sediments in Silver Bow Creek are running ten to thirty times the safe level.

Joel Chavez, the Superfund Project Manager for DEQ, explained to me that this is not necessarily as bad as it looks. The arsenic, copper, and other heavy metals are concentrated in the fines (very small diameter) portion of the creek sediments, and the fines make up a relatively small overall proportion of the total sediments. Therefore, the overall proportion of contamination is fairly low.

Still, copper is toxic to most aquatic life. Recontamination -- especially if it continues in a chronic manner -- could prevent trout from recolonizing the creek and impair the kinds of critters that trout eat. Re-establishing trout populations is a major goal for the restoration of Silver Bow Creek. Recontamination might mean failure for remedy and restoration.

This single instance of recontamination is one sign of a broader failure with two main parts: one is a fundamental problem with the upper Silver Bow Creek and Butte hill remedy; and the other is a fundamental problem with public communication and involvement.

Over the past decade or so, EPA assured us that recontamination would not occur. Problem is, instead of cleanup, EPA prefers long-term institutional controls—complex engineering solutions such as settling ponds and trenches to intercept and reroute toxic runoff. While this sort of cover-up is cheaper for Arco-British Petroleum, it doesn’t work.

What have the EPA, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, and Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program to say about the recontamination of Silver Bow Creek? Nothing. That’s right: no public meeting, no nothing. Silver Bow Creek was cleaned up with public money. We expect government to use our money responsibly. That responsibility includes involving the public in planning and notifying us when things go wrong.

The EPA, of course, ignored public opinion regarding remedy for the Butte hill when it came to issues such as removing the Parrot Tailings.

Given the evidence that Silver Bow Creek is being recontaminated, Warm Springs Ponds are the safety net that protects the Clark Fork River. They are located at the lower end of Silver Bow Creek, just before it joins Warm Springs Creeks and other tributaries to form the Clark Fork River. The ponds are a popular recreational area for anglers, bird watchers, bikers, hunters, and waterfowl dog trainers.

CFRTAC has been working with the state to improve management at the ponds. There is serious neglect: toilets are a wreck, personnel have been cut, trash cans overflow, and facilities such as boat ramps and picnic tables are in disrepair. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has incorporated many of CFRTAC’s concerns into a proposal for funding from the Natural Resource Damage Program (NRDP).

As an outcome of its recent 168 million dollar settlement with Arco-British Petroleum, the Natural Resource Damage Program has released plans for the Butte hill and Clark Fork River.

The Butte plan proposes removing the Parrott and Metro Storm Drain tailings at a cost of about 26 million dollars. EPA should have required this under remedy, and it will help insure the long-term environmental health of the watershed.

Montana will also be the lead agency for the 104 million dollar Clark Fork River remedy, thus enabling it to integrate remedy and restoration.

Despite this good news, CFRTAC’s overarching concern remains: there is no comprehensive restoration plan for the Upper Clark Fork River Basin. The state needs to involve the public in developing a plan that identifies and prioritizes restoration needs as a guide for decisions about which projects get funded. Carol Fox, director of the NRDP, assures me that there is a process underway to develop such a plan.

For more news about the recent NRD settlement and related Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink 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.

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