What’s in the EPA’s Proposed Plan for our Creek?

If the Superfund cleanup for Butte’s urban area were a marathon (it’s actually been much longer), then the EPA’s recent release of the Proposed Plan signifies the final mile before the finish line. We’ve covered most of the long, grueling distance, but there are still a number of significant strides needed to break the tape, so to speak.


The public will have ample opportunity to learn about what details are in these last steps.  EPA scheduled at least two meetings (the first one was held last night, Tuesday, April 23 at 6 p.m. in the Montana Tech Auditorium), plus Chief Executive Dave Palmer will have the local government’s Superfund technical and legal staff on hand at Council of Commissioners regular meetings to answer any questions the twelve commissioners may have about the cleanup.


Last week was the commissioners’ first opportunity to ask questions. All of the questions focused on the biggest proposed change to the cleanup: a change in the allowable limits for Copper and Zinc in Blacktail and Silver Bow Creeks during storms and snow melt. Basically, the change is a waiver from the limits set by the State of Montana to those set by the federal government.


“What is the difference?”


Montana uses what’s called a “total recoverable” standard, which applies to all forms of copper, zinc or whatever the element may be, that is in the creek. “All” means the amount of substance that is dissolved in the water AND any undissolved material, such as floating particulates or sediments in the stream.


The EPA, on the other hand, uses a dissolved standard, which only applies to the dissolved portion of the substances in the water. It is very important to note two things. One, the EPA’s dissolved standards are deemed protective. And two, the reason they are protective is because the dissolved substances pose the biggest threat to the gilled animals living in the stream.


The United States Clean Water Act requires all waters to meet these EPA dissolved standards to ensure the protection of human health, as well as the fish and other plants and animals living in the water. The federal law also allows individual states to set their own standards, but only if those state standards are at least as protective as the ones set by the EPA.


What does this mean?


This means that states can choose to be MORE protective than the federal standards, but not LESS. Today, out of our 50 states, 37 of them – or about 75 percent – use the EPA’s standards to ensure waters are protective. Montana is one of the 13 remaining states that have chosen their own, more restrictive standards.


“That’s good, right?”


Well, yes. But more protective standards are only good if you can meet them. In certain instances, it’s simply not possible. For example, similar Superfund waivers are already in place for the upper Clark Fork River below Warm Springs, and the section of the river at Milltown above Missoula. Despite the waivers, the water in these areas is still clean, humans are safe, and the fishery is healthy enough to provide all kinds of recreational and economic opportunities for Montanans.


It’s also important to emphasize that the proposed change or waiver for Copper and Zinc standards in Butte only applies during rainstorm and snowmelt events. When runoff from our steep hills and streets flows into the creeks, it’s virtually impossible to keep all of the metals (carried by the rain or melted snow) from reaching the Creek. The rest of the time, though, Copper and Zinc levels meet the more restrictive, “total recoverable” state standards. And just like where there are waivers on the Clark Fork, the water in Blacktail and Silver Bow Creeks is still clean, our residents are safe, and the fishery is healthy enough for our kids to catch trout. Plus, with all of the work still to come under the other components of the Proposed Plan, things here in Butte are only bound to get better.  


I will talk more about this waiver, our environmental laws and the health of Butte’s streams in an upcoming column.


Back to the Proposed Plan…

For those who don’t have time or choose not to attend meetings, lots of information is available on EPA’s website (start with a simplified fact sheet here: https://semspub.epa.gov/work/08/100006141.pdf ). Citizens can also call Superfund staff. Butte-Silver Bow’s contact is Eric Hassler at 497-5042; EPA is Nikia Greene at 457-5019; Daryl Reed with State of Montana at 444-6433 and Josh Bryson with Atlantic Richfield Company at 723-1834. Comments on the Proposed Plan will be accepted through Tuesday, June 11, so attend a meeting, read up online, make a call and most of all, take advantage of your opportunity to weigh in. This is the last stretch…let them hear you!


Matt Vincent started working on Butte’s Superfund cleanup in 1995 and has continued that path to the present. A distinguished alum of Montana Tech’s Chemistry Department, he has worked as a water quality specialist, reclamation manager, an award-winning environmental educator and journalist and most recently, as Butte-Silver Bow’s Chief Executive. Currently, he owns and operates Rampart Solutions, a professional consulting firm in Butte. He also serves on the Montana Environmental Quality Council as a citizen member.