When the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant starts operating later this year, the contaminated waters from the Berkeley Pit and underground mines should be managed safely for years to come. In the meantime, another cleanup project – called the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit – is just now reaching its critical decision point (i.e., the Record of Decision, scheduled by the end of 2003). Over the next several months, there will be a series of public meetings about this project, and the Committee would like to share information to help citizens understand the issues and encourage participation in the decision-making process.
Where is the Butte Priority Soils cleanup site?
Generally, the project includes the residential yards and mine dumps on the Butte Hill and in Walkerville, and the water drainages weaving down the Hill to Silver Bow Creek. The site is about five square miles and includes most of the urban area from Walkerville on the north to Silver Bow Creek on the south, along with the Clark Tailings below Timber Butte.
It’s also important to understand what the Priority Soils does NOT include. It’s separate from the Berkeley Pit and underground mine flooding project, which, as we’ve reported in PITWATCH for several years, is the responsibility of Arco and Montana Resources. The Priority Soils is also separate from the Montana Pole cleanup and the Streamside Tailings project along Silver Bow Creek, both of which are ongoing and the responsibility of Montana Department of Environmental Quality. In the big picture, all these cleanup activities will have to fit together, but for now, Priority Soils stands alone.
What is the cleanup task?
The job is two-fold:
- to eliminate direct contact with mine waste on the Hill, thus protecting human health; and
- to prevent the heavy metals in those mine waste materials from getting into storm water and groundwater and finding their way to Silver Bow Creek, thereby protecting life in the stream and the DEQ’s $85 million creek cleanup project.
Is some work already complete?
Yes. In fact, a substantial amount of the cleanup of Priority Soils has occurred – about $50 million of work by current estimates. Over the past 15 years, several projects have been completed, with the understanding that all this work will be reviewed as part of the final decision. Major projects include: the Alice Pit/Dump (1998); several areas in Walkerville (1988, 1994, 2002); the Missoula Gulch, Buffalo Gulch and Kelley ditches and retention ponds (1997-99); railroad corridors (2001-03); and Lower Area One, including the reconstructed Silver Bow Creek, the Colorado Tailings removal, and the Clark Tailings project (1993-2000).
In all, more than 175 mine dumps covering more than 400 acres have been partially removed and capped, and more than 180 residential yards have been cleaned up (lead soil removals). The caps generally consist of placing 18″ of clean soil materials with organic amendments over the wastes and planting native vegetation to hold the soil in place and minimize erosion. To complement the caps, a system of storm water collection facilities – the new drainage ditches and retention ponds – has been installed to collect water that may still contain heavy metals and prevent those contaminants from reaching Silver Bow Creek.
What Other Areas and Issues Must Be Addressed?
The major cleanups still ahead include the Parrot Tailings near the Civic Center and the Metro Storm Drain corridor, which once was the historic Silver Bow Creek channel that flowed through town, and a large area north of the Kelley Mine, surrounding the Mountain Con Mineyard and the Granite Mountain Memorial.
In addition to cleanups, other issues include deciding what type of water treatment system should be used to ensure groundwater, surface water or storm water leaving the area will not pollute Silver Bow Creek heading west of town. Another big decision will be to determine whether the projects already completed were done satisfactorily and will be permanent, or whether additional work is needed.
Perhaps the most important issue is to determine how the reclaimed areas and water management facilities will perform in the long term and be effectively maintained. As part of the Record of Decision, it will be critical to set the right performance standards for treatment and long-term care, and then determine how much money it will take to get the job done properly.
Is Butte on the hook for the Priority Soils cleanup?
Unlike every other cleanup around Butte, where the citizens have been protected from any Superfund liability, Butte-Silver Bow was named as a Potentially Responsible Party or PRP to conduct the Priority Soils cleanup. In 1990, EPA decided that since the publicly owned storm water system carried wastes off the Hill to the creek, the community was partly liable for the problem.
However, Arco is also a PRP for Priority Soils, and for the most part over the past 15 years, Arco has paid all costs for cleanup work. As part of the upcoming Record of Decision and then a Consent Decree for the Priority Soils project, Butte’s “share” will be determined.
For much more on Butte Priority Soils and other area Superfund projects, visit the Citizens Technical Environmental Committee (Butte CTEC) website.