A tad of Butte History and More on Water Quality Standards and Waivers

In 1864, a small group of prospectors discovered gold on a pretty, unnamed mountain stream. That same year, roughly 10 miles upstream near the western flank of the Continental Divide, two miners, Humphreys and Allison, staked a quartz lode claim and named it the “Original.” Together, these two instances in 1864 began Butte’s reign, which continues today, as “The Mining City.”

Prior to the 1970s – the decade in which our federal government passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, established the EPA and observed the first Earth Day – Butte’s mining (and all mining and industry, for that matter) was near perfectly unregulated. Oil giant Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) bought Anaconda Copper in 1977 and quickly began shutting down operations in 1980. By 1987, Butte and Anaconda and everything between here and Milltown was listed as a Superfund site.       


Fast forward…

Today, the biggest thing going on in Butte’s world of Superfund is the release of EPA’s revised Proposed Plan for cleaning up our town’s urban area, the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit, which includes portions of Silver Bow and Blacktail Creeks. My first Restoring Butte column focused on the fundamental change in the EPA’s Proposed Plan, the decision to waive Montana water quality standards during storm events for copper and zinc to the federal standard.

In a nutshell, the Montana water quality standard, which includes both dissolved and solid fractions of substances, is impossible to meet during storms in Butte due to our urban landscape, steep hills and historic mining and mineralized geology. The federal standards only focus on the dissolved fraction but are still protective of human health and the environment.


Talking about “Technical Impracticability”

Joe Griffin, a former project manager with the State of Montana and a scientist who’s worked on Butte’s Superfund sites for years, recently gave an informative public presentation on the Proposed Plan. In his presentation, Joe explained why it’s “technically impracticable” to meet copper and zinc standards in Silver Bow and Blacktail Creeks during storms.  EPA defines “technically impracticable” as a proposed cleanup measure found to be impossible from an engineering perspective. EPA determined the waiver was necessary in Butte during storms due to the following reasons:

·       The small size of Silver Bow Creek makes it impossible for the creek to handle the amount of storm water and sediments running into it during thunderstorms, etc.

·       During most storms, Blacktail Creek exceeds standards for copper and zinc before it flows into the Superfund site. If the upstream section of the creek is out of compliance, then it isn’t possible to meet the standards within the boundaries of the Superfund site.

·       Because the City of Butte is built upon a steep hill, there are not enough areas where storm water and sediments can be slowed down and collected to prevent all of them from reaching the creek.

·       When Butte was being built in its heyday, mining and smelting was unregulated and the vast majority of dirt in town was contaminated with heavy metals. These soils were used for filling in and around roads, railroads, foundations and buildings. Furthermore, Butte has a very mineralized geology. We are, after all, “The Richest Hill on Earth.”


Therefore, it is entirely reasonable to believe that removing all of the copper, zinc and other metals from our streams during storm events is, in fact, “technically impracticable.”


Plenty of Work Left To Do

The waiver being granted is not a “free pass” by any stretch. First, it’s important to remember this Proposed Plan is a revision to the cleanup plan approved by EPA back in 2006. A lot of the work in that 2006 plan has already been completed or is ongoing. Secondly, the proposal to waive copper and zinc standards during storms is in return for Atlantic Richfield’s agreement to perform additional work – a lot of additional work. This additional work, which I will detail in an upcoming column, was included when EPA did its evaluation to see if it was technically possible to meet copper and zinc standards in the creek during storms.  Guess what? Even WITH this extra work completed, the EPA’s modeling showed that meeting the state standards during storms was not going to happen. Recalling the reasons why above, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The most important things to remind in closing are 1) that Blacktail and Silver Bow Creeks meet all standards most of the times during regular conditions, and 2) that the federal standards for copper and zinc we are waiving to during storms are still protective of water quality and human health.

The public’s opportunity to review, question and comment on the revised plan began on April 11 and continues until June 11, 2019. EPA will host a second public meeting for citizens to ask questions and comment on May 23, 2019 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Montana Tech Library Auditorium. Other informational meetings may be scheduled by additional entities, so check the news and social media for potential opportunities. Folks can also visit the EPA website https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.docdata&id=0800416#FeatDocs to find a copy of the Proposed Plan and to find out more about Butte Superfund.

Do you have an idea or question for an upcoming edition of Restoring Butte? Email me at info@rampart-solutions.com