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Superfund during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Matt Vincent

Right now, everything is seemingly within the iron grip of the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Our daily lives have been redefined by the government’s response. As of Tuesday, April 15, Montana has 404 confirmed cases, 50 cumulative hospitalizations and seven deaths to the novel coronavirus.

Things here in Butte might not be so bad since our population is a lot less dense than most places, even for Montana. We are blessed to be able go outside and enjoy the fresh spring air and sunshine as long as we practice our social distancing and appropriate preventative practices.

One unique aspect of our lifestyle here that doesn’t directly affect other places is how we cope with Superfund. From the Berkeley Pit to the Warm Springs Ponds there are a number of vital management, monitoring and associated activities necessary in order to keep the public and environment safe. Although these activities are obviously affected too, many of them cannot simply be left undone until the current health crisis is over.

Luckily, environmental protection is on the list of essential activities needed to continue amid the pandemic. As such, it’s been business as usual – with some obvious adjustments and additional precautions – for the entities, agencies and individuals caring for our Superfund sites.

The first Superfund site that likely comes to people’s minds is the Berkeley Pit. Rest assured, the vital water monitoring, treatment and management activities that keep the Pit safe are ongoing. The Horseshoe Bend water treatment plant and the new polishing plant on Shields Avenue are both operating, the latter which continues to release millions of gallons of clean, treated water into Silver Bow Creek each day. Montana Resources, Atlantic Richfield Company and their contractors are working just as hard with a new diligence toward staying safe amid the COVID-19 crisis – for themselves, their coworkers and the community at large.

Keeping the “community at large” safe also applies to ducks and geese. Not only are the responsible parties continuing to manage and treat the groundwater filling the Pit, but efforts to protect the migrating waterfowl heading north are also in full effect.

Likewise, most of the activities at the other Butte area Superfund sites are continuing with additional precautions or are being done in part or are on hold due to the current crisis.

At the Montana Pole Plant, the remedy in place continues to operate as normal, which includes a water treatment plant to remove organic contamination out of the groundwater before releasing it into Silver Bow Creek. Water treatment activities as well as dam stability monitoring is also ongoing at the Warm Springs Ponds site.

On the Butte Priority Soils, the Residential Metals Abatement program continues to sample and clean up contaminated yards, while interior work on residences has been temporarily suspended. Inside work will start again once our public health agencies and the EPA determine it’s safe to do so.

Outside work evaluating and maintaining reclaimed mine dumps and stormwater controls also continues, as well as work operating and maintaining the Butte Treatment Lagoons, a system that manages and treats the contaminated groundwater coming from the Butte Hill and historic Silver Bow Creek corridor.

Meanwhile, public outreach activities are still taking place, although in-person forums and face-to-face interactions are currently on hold. The agencies and the parties involved, which include Butte-Silver Bow local government have turned to on-line and electronic means to help educate the community as well as to answer its questions, address its concerns and accept its input with respect to the pending Consent Decree for the final cleanup plan.

Of course, the EPA and the responsible parties are keeping a very close eye on the situation and are ready to revise these operations if new guidance is developed or if situations change. In the meantime, if a citizen has any questions, he or she may reach out to me at matt@rampart-solutions.com and I can do my best to help. Even better, coordinate with EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Dana Barnicoat at (406) 560-6261 or barnicoat.dana@epa.gov . Questions about local health concerns related to the pandemic should be directed to the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department at 497-5020.

Lastly – or maybe firstly! – thank you to all of the Superfund workers putting themselves out there during this tenuous time in order to keep our public health and environment safe. We truly appreciate your efforts!


A Fed Ex delivery truck and a semi-truck bringing lime to the Butte Treatment Lagoons are signs that the essential groundwater collection and treatment plant part of the Butte Priority Soils Superfund site is operating amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With specific adjustments and precautions in place, all activities necessary to keep the Butte area’s Superfund remedies functional are ongoing.[/caption]

This photo from July 2013 shows the rim of the Berkeley Pit were a slough deposited surface material into the Pit lake in Feb. 2013. Photo by Fritz Daily.

Snow Geese Update

• It is estimated that many thousands of migrating snow geese stopped in the Berkeley Pit the week of November 28, 2016. The number of migrating geese that passed through this area and landed in the Berkeley Pit is unprecedented. Most geese left the pit on Tuesday November 29, 2016 and continued their migration south.
• Unfortunately, some geese remained in the pit for nearly a week or longer, and it is estimated that several thousand of those snow geese perished in the Berkeley Pit.
• Montana Resources (MR) and Atlantic Richfield Company (AR) operate a program under the direction of US EPA and the State of Montana to deter waterfowl from landing in the pit, and to encourage any waterfowl in the pit to leave as soon as possible after resting. Over the course of the last two decades, the average number of birds observed on the Berkeley Pit over an entire year is approximately 4,000 or less, and almost all of those birds leave the pit after a short rest.
• On November 28, 2016, many more birds landed in the pit in one day than are normally seen over an entire year. MR and AR personnel attempted to convince the waterfowl to stay away from or leave the pit, using bird wailers, fireworks, and other conventional methods along with the addition of new technologies including drones. Staff diligence and dedication working day and night saved thousands of birds.
• MR and AR are coordinating with federal and state agencies, as well as waterfowl experts, to understand this unprecedented arrival of waterfowl in the Butte and why the waterfowl selected the Berkeley Pit for resting.
• MR and AR will work closely with federal and state regulators, and waterfowl experts to identify and evaluate potential new methods to strengthen and improve the waterfowl mitigation program. These may include such items as additional on-the-water and aerial remote control drone technologies, laser technology remote controlled water craft, and sonic devices.
• There is a program to provide veterinary care and assistance to sick geese. If members of the public in the Butte or Dillon areas spot a sick or dead goose, they are asked to please contact Montana Resources at 496-3233 or Butte-Silver Bow Animal Control at 406-497-6527.
• Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is advising hunters to wait to consume snow geese harvested after November 28 in the Butte and Dillon area. Instead, FWP recommends that hunters process and freeze birds at this time and do not eat them until the department has conducted tests to determine how or if this event has affected the edible portions of the birds.

Geothermal Project Heats Up

The 10,000 miles of underground tunnels beneath Butte have filled with water since the closure of the Berkeley Pit and, in 1982, the shut-off of groundwater pumps that had dewatered the underground in the past. These waters are typically regarded as a liability, but a new project at Montana Tech is viewing the watery mines of Butte as a potential asset.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to develop a demonstration system for capturing geothermal energy from mine waters beneath Butte. The demonstration will involve the installation of a heat-pump system in Tech’s new Natural Resources Building. The system will provide geothermally-based climate control for the building, illustrating the feasibility of using mine waters in heat-pump systems.

The project utilizes some of the advantages of mine waters compared to other sources of groundwater. Easy access to mine waters already exists in the form of mine shafts, saving the costs of drilling wells. Butte mine waters are also unusually warm; the mine waters used in this project are consistently 78°F (25°C). Additionally, it takes a lot of water to fill 10,000 miles of tunnel, so there is plenty available for geothermal applications.

Estimates show that heating costs for the Natural Resources Building could be cut by more than half by preheating incoming air with mine waters. By reducing energy needs that would traditionally be met by burning fossil fuels, the project has the added benefit of promoting environmental sustainability by reducing emissions. The concept could also be extended to other regions where warm geothermal waters exist. In mining communities that lie in warmer climates than Butte, cooler mine waters could be used similarly, but for cooling rather than heating. The project is currently in its early phases. After a feasibility study is completed this year, if all goes as planned, construction could begin in 2011. If successful, the project could be applied to buildings throughout Butte.