07 October 2009

Remedy & Restoration in Reverse? (CFRTAC commentary)

[This post is adapted from a Montana Public Radio commentary for the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee, 01.Oct.09]

September’s bluebird weather couldn’t last forever. Snow came just in time to dampen forest fires and raise river flows. Soon, winter end the construction season here on America’s largest Superfund megasite.

Sadly, there is no uniform approach to cleanup. At one extreme is Silver Bow Creek: a removal remedy that will result in a self-sustaining ecosystem with public access. At the other extreme is the Berkeley Pit: to protect human and environmental health, it requires expensive water treatment and a secure fence in perpetuity. Somewhere in the middle, there’s uptown Butte: toxic waste treated in place, requiring maintenance and institutional controls – that is, limited public access and use – in perpetuity.

A great Superfund lesson: get cleanup right the first time. Ten years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified areas along Deer Lodge’s East Side Road where an irrigation ditch spread polluted river water. Arsenic levels – including soils around residential dwellings – were sky high. EPA ordered Arco – the responsible party – to clean it up. Some landowners allowed access for emergency removals, some did not.

CFRTAC technical advisor Jim Kuipers and I visited one property last week where the landowner had allowed clean up. John Inkret, a plant restoration scientist, also experimented with revegetation. Bottom line: his property supports healthy vegetation and – at least in the recent past – was not hazardous to his health.

Some neighbors denied access. One adjacent property has a rental unit let to families with small children that play in a yard where – in many areas – even knapweed can’t grow. Bare soil on another adjacent property indicates serious overgrazing. Windblown soils can spread pollution and cause “remedy and restoration in reverse.”

Photograph of adjacent rental unit:

Photograph along fence line between Inkret property (health vegetation) and overgrazed pasture:

Contamination around Mr. Inkret’s property is scientifically confirmed, including analysis of his dog’s hair. Arsenic levels were literally off the chart. Dogs are an excellent biosampler: arsenic and metals levels in hair tissue indicate exposure over a period of months. Contamination in yards and homes correlates well with data from residential pets. This is confirmed by EPA-funded studies in Butte and Anaconda.

Luckily, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality is now lead agency on the Clark Fork. Crews are sampling residential yards. Where arsenic exceeds the action level of one hundred and fifty parts per million, yards will be cleaned up next summer.

While this problem should have been dealt with years ago, it is – finally – getting fixed.

Mr. Inkret’s case and the general failure of EPA and Arco to protect human and environmental health served as an instructive example for DEQ:
• The arsenic action level is more protective of human and environmental health than higher levels set by EPA in Butte and Anaconda;
• Soils are sampled to a depth of eighteen inches rather than the superficial two inch depth used by EPA;
• A simple one-page access agreement for landowners replaces complex and confusing paperwork used by EPA and Arco; and
• Sampling data will be coordinated with county planners and health officers instead of buried obscure files.

A few additional suggestions for DEQ:
• Educate landowners that do not allow cleanup about legal liabilities they incur;
• Work with counties to make sampling data available to tenants and prospective buyers; and
• Utilize biomonitoring – that is, hair clippings from pet dogs – to measure the extent of pollution and the efficacy of cleanup.

Moving upriver, five-year reviews of Superfund remedy are underway. Butte’s EPA-funded TAG group, the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee, is actively involved.

The Silver Bow Creek remedy – with DEQ as lead agency – generally looks good in terms of water quality, soils, and revegetation. DEQ utilizes an aggressive “monitor and fix it” approach to problems such as patches of contaminated soil missed in the initial cleanup. Many aspects of the original remedy were vague, but DEQ is developing practical performance standards. For example, the goal for metals levels in stream sediments is guided by new research on probable and threshold effect concentrations—levels at which there are measurable effects on aquatic organisms.

On the Butte hill, EPA is developing a Residential Metals Abatement Plan. We applaud the agency for taking a multiple-pathway approach toward assessing the many ways in which residents can suffer toxic exposure in a complicated, urban Superfund site. There is, however, reason to believe that arsenic and metals action levels are set too high. Socioeconomic factors raise concerns about environmental justice. In light of community criticism, it might be advisable to amend the original Record of Decision and implement a more protective remedy.

For more news about the Clark Fork River, Milltown, and other Superfund issues, please check out CFRTAC’s website at hyperlink http://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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