Deal With BP/ARCO Will Leave Butte Contaminated for Centuries
Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is prepared to walk away from the nation’s largest Superfund site, located in Butte, Montana, according to a report issued today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, millions of cubic yards of mine tailings, smelting slag and other wastes will drain in perpetuity into the headwaters of the Clark Fork and Columbia Rivers, thus relegating the Butte-Silver Bow area into an industrial dead zone with dim economic prospects.
The Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit site covers five square miles, making it the nation’s largest Superfund site. The site lies in the upper Silver Bow Creek valley, immediately west of the continental divide, and has for generations received massive amounts of smelter waste. The site also contains the historic city of Butte, the nation’s second largest National Historic Landmark District.
Under the pending arrangement, EPA is poised to make a formal finding of “Technical Impracticability” that the tailings and other wastes cannot be feasibly removed and therefore the aquifer on which is sits must be sacrificed. This EPA finding will allow the responsible party, Atlantic Richfield Company (now British Petroleum/ARCO), to walk away without fully cleaning up the site.
EPA’s decision is severely criticized in the PEER white paper, entitled Cut and Run and written by geologists, hydrologists, hydrogeologists, soil scientists, and engineers who have worked extensively with mine waste characterization and reclamation in western Montana. These professionals critique the science behind the decision to leave the tailings in place and detail the long-term consequences of that decision.
Cut and Run argues that, contrary to its own procedures, EPA is making this Technical Impracticability finding without proper characterization of the tailings and without knowing how fast the contaminant plume is growing. EPA’s lack of careful characterization not only violates its own guidelines but common sense as well:
- Public Health Threat Looming. Leaving wastes in contact with groundwater does not protect human health and the environment in this unique and pivotal hydrologic spot;
- Environmentally Counterproductive. EPA’s plan puts all the reclamation work performed downstream from the headwaters at risk of recontamination or failure; and
- Economically Devastating. Deferring cleanup indefinitely will impede Butte’s economic future.
“EPA’s plan to let the site be cleaned over geologic time condemns Butte to centuries of contamination,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the nomination of Susan Bodine to head EPA’s Superfund Program is still pending before the U.S. Senate. “EPA is doing BP/ARCO a huge favor that will save the company shareholders millions and leave taxpayers holding the bag.”