Down With Dirty Dirt and ‘Waste in Place’ in Butte

Photo by Ben Ostrower

Time to tip one to a rare victory in the never-ending battle to achieve an actual clean up, not a cover up, of Butte’s toxic mining wastes since it was listed as a Superfund site more than 40 years ago.  

Thanks to the ferocious efforts of a very determined band of citizens who want their inalienable right to a “clean and healthy environment” guaranteed by the Montana Constitutionthe “good guys” defeated a “waste in place” plan to use soil contaminated with toxics as infill. 

For far too long it’s been the citizens versus ARCO-BP, one of the wealthiest corporations on the planet, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which has all too often has sided with the polluter, not the people.  

To make matters worse, the citizens have had to fight closed meetings where backroom deals were signed between the EPA and ARCO-BP, the state, and local government officials who willingly ignored Montana’s constitutional mandate that citizens have access to all public meetings unless individual privacy takes precedent over the public’s “right to know.”  And rest assured, when it comes to toxic wastes, there are very few instances concerning individual privacy on Superfund sites.

In this particular case, ARCO-BP, with the EPA’s blessing, had determined it could use soil contaminated with cadmium, lead and arsenic as infill material along the Silver Bow Creek corridor.  The Butte watchdogs, led by Evan Barrett, former legislator Fritz Daily, and many others, said “no way” to using what they called “dirty dirt” and fought to remove the toxics from the creek corridor and backfill it with clean material. 

As Barrett put it, “It looks like the ‘dirty dirt train’ has been derailed,” adding: “It’s a validation for public involvement.  But it’s been a real battle. They were playing hardball.”

Indeed, the EPA and ARCO-BP have been playing “hardball” for the same reason industry polluters always do — it costs less to leave the waste in place rather than moving it to a repository actually designed to hold such toxics and monitored to ensure they don’t leak. 

In this case, ARCO-BP tried to justify their plan by claiming leaving the contaminated materials in place would produce less truck traffic from both hauling the waste away and bringing in clean soil for infill.  Given Butte has been stuck with Superfund remediation impacts for more than four decades, the concern about the number of trucks was a laughable excuse, at best.

While this is one small victory for the people of Butte, it gives hope to other Montana communities now facing similar Superfund issues of “waste in place” instead of an actual clean up.  Most prominent is the EPA’s proposal to leave highly toxic wastes from the defunct Columbia Falls aluminum smelter in place rather than excavating and removing them to a facility permitted to receive such high-level toxics.

Mind you, there are a couple hundred acres of buried wastes at the Columbia Falls site and, wouldn’t you just know it, sitting in the flood plain of the Flathead River.  Considering the 1.2 million cubic yards of those wastes contain fluoride, cyanide and toxic metals, there’s every reason the citizens and local government officials of Columbia Falls aren’t going for it.  Peter Metcalf, a Columbia Falls resident and board member of the Coalition for a Clean CFAC echoed the battle cry of Butte’s citizens, accurately noting: “We have one chance to get this right for the community.”  And when it comes to Superfund sites, whatever they get right or wrong the first time around is what the populace gets to live with far into the future.  

So here’s to Butte’s citizens for fighting — and winning — and blazing a trail for Columbia Falls citizens in their battle for a clean up, not a cover up.   

As Barrett put it: “We want it all clean.  You need to do the right thing and we are not going to give up until it’s done.”  

That’s exactly what our constitution guarantees — and Montanans have no reason to settle for anything less.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.