16 May 2008

Superfund Connectedness: If Butte doesn't flush, Missoula doesn't drink...

When it comes to America's Largest Superfund Site here in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin of Montana, we are all together in a very big lifeboat. By "we," I mean residents of Butte, Anaconda, Opportunity, Deer Lodge, Bonner/Milltown, Missoula, and surrounding areas. It's like the traditional union slogan, "An injury to one is an injury to all." This is also true in an environmental sense, of course. As some like to say in Butte, "If Butte doesn't flush the toilet, then Missoula doesn't get a drink of water."

Lately, I've been staying out of the springtime blizzards and reading through hundreds of pages of monitoring reports on Silver Bow Creek—that little stream that flows from Butte at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. Silver Bow Creek -- technically known as the Stream Side Tailings Operable Unit -- was one of the first sites to be addressed by Superfund in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin. Furthermore, Silver Bow Creek is an excellent example of Superfund remedy integrated with restoration, with the state of Montana (rather than the EPA) taking the lead.

Thanks to Montana’s Natural Resource Damage Program, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is spending several million dollars per mile to cleanup and restore 24 miles of Silver Bow Creek. The flood plain is dredged to remove stream sediments high in arsenic and toxic heavy metals, the stream is reconstructed to function as a stream should, clean soil is spread along the corridor, and the area is revegetated with native plants and shrubs.

To the eye, the area looks pretty darned good, especially when you compare the "before:"

With the "after:"

It's disturbing, though, to learn that the remedied and restored creek is being recontaminated.

Initially, when I heard about the recontamination of Silver Bow Creek, I thought it might be an ephemeral problem stemming from recent work along Butte’s old Metro Storm Drain. The DEQ site supervisor assured me it's not a big problem.

Data show, however, that this recontamination has been occurring since monitoring began in 2002. And it sure looks like a big problem, with contaminant levels far higher than threshold levels that indicate impairment of aquatic life. For example, the threshold for copper in sediments is about thirty parts per million. Contamination levels routinely exceed this threshold by a factor of ten, and occasionally by a factor of one hundred. Geez, if Denny Washington hears about this, he’ll start mining Silver Bow Creek!

After five years of reports confirming recontamination, you’d think DEQ and EPA would do something. Data indicate that recontamination is steadily occurring. Yet, each year, the annual review concludes with the recommendations: collect more data; try to identify the source; wait and see.

What, exactly, are we waiting for? We know that under remedy many sources of contamination on the Butte hill will remain. Furthermore, completing that remedy is some years in the future. Finally, a solution to this recontamination problem is already on the table: EPA included treatment ponds as an option in the Butte hill remedy. Let’s build that treatment facility now, and stop the madness.

In a very real, physical sense, the headwater stream of Silver Bow Creek is connected with the main stem of the Clark Fork River. Water flows down hill.

Every clean up has its price: sometimes in dollars and sometimes in human terms. With the clean up of Silver Bow Creek, Milltown, and other Superfund sites in the Upper Clark, let’s not forget where all that toxic mine waste goes. No, it doesn’t magically disappear.

Here we have a case of social (and environmental) effects moving upstream.

The toxic mine waste from Milltown is hauled up river to the vast Arco-British Petroleum waste repository near the town of Opportunity. Charlie Coleman of the EPA conducted a group tour of CRTAC and Opportunity activists on the repository last week. It was formerly known as the Opportunity Ponds, and for many years the Anaconda Copper Mining Company dumped waste there from its Anaconda smelter.

Tour group at the Arco-British Petroleum waste repository near the town of Opportunity:

It’s a big site: four thousand acres; more than six square miles. To date, the Arco-BP waste repository has been a big problem for nearby residents. Much of the waste was so phytotoxic that it would not support ground cover. Arsenic and heavy metals were carried off by wind and water erosion. Huge dust storms still occasionally engulf the town of Opportunity.

The day we visited, Arco-BP’s waste repository was a beehive of activity. Dennis Washington’s Montana Rail Link hauls waste by the trainload from Milltown, and Washington’s EnviroCon company spreads this waste as topsoil and undertakes revegetation. The 2.2 million cubic yards from Milltown – that’s about a million pickup loads – will cover a third of the waste repository.

EPA believes that the arsenic and metals levels of the Milltown waste, while high enough to classify as toxic waste, are low enough to support vegetation at a highly toxic waste repository currenlty devoid of vegetation.

Toxic mine waste being offloaded from the train to haul trucks:

Haul truck spreading the toxic mine waste as topsoil:

Area recently seeded:

Much of the waste repository has already been revegetated using contaminated soils from Silver Bow Creek. For the most part, says Charlie Coleman, the vegetative standard of 30% cover appears to have been met [see note, below]:

Some areas are pretty sparse, and if necessary will receive additional topsoil and reseeding:

Hopefully, this vegetative cover will end the dust storms, erosion, and further contamination of the groundwater aquifer.

Opportunity is a beautiful little town, and residents worry about being so close to a corporate waste dump. Some are more than a little skeptical about EPA assurances that this toxic waste in their backyard will be safely contained. They also do not trust EPA assurances that the arsenic action level of 250 parts per million is safe. Ninety Opportunity residents recently filed a lawsuit against Arco-British Petroleum, claiming that the corporation has “recklessly jeopardized their property, health, and welfare.”

The lesson here is that in Superfund, as in all things, we are connected. What happens along Silver Bow Creek will affect the Clark Fork River, and what happens at Milltown will affect the town of Opportunity. Let us all praise the Milltown Dam removal and cleanup, but let us also support Opportunity in its quest for environmental justice.

For more news about the recontamination of Silver Bow Creek, the Arco-British Petroleum waste repository, and other Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink www.cfrtac.org.


Note: I readily confess that I do not know my butt from a hairy hole in the ground (sorry for the unfortunate analogy, but we are talking about a toxic mine waste site here!) when it comes to revegetation standards. Charlie Coleman, EPA, explained that they are using a Montana State University-Bozeman yardstick called "LRES Standard." The 30% goal must be met within ten years.

[An earlier version of this was broadcast as a commentary on Montana Public Radio.]

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