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Butte’s Parrot Tailings (yet again)

CFRTAC KUFM/Montana Public Radio Commentary by Pat Munday
October 27, 2011

Hi, I’m Pat Munday for the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee.

I felt the earth tilt away from the sun this week. Walking to work in the dark, golden aspens on the ridges of the Continental Divide east of Butte, and the low slant of light in the afternoon all point to winter. It won’t be long until we are clearing snow from our sidewalks and roads.

Butte-Silver Bow County received a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warning it to stop dumping snow removed from streets onto an area near the county shops. The county also must stop irrigating baseball fields there. Problem is, this water seeps into the aquifer and increases the amount that Arco-BP must capture and treat to protect Silver Bow Creek.

Beneath the county shops lie the Parrot Tailings, a highly contaminated body of waste left by smelters a century ago. Thus far, EPA, Arco-British Petroleum, and Butte government have all stood shoulder-to-shoulder in opposing removal of the Parrott Tailings. The recent EPA order is a good reminder that leaving waste in place today limits land use in our future.

The Parrot Tailings consists of about three hundred thousand cubic yards of highly contaminated mine waste. By comparison, several million cubic yards were removed from Milltown. The amount at Milltown was eight times more than the Parrott. Furthermore, heavy metals and arsenic levels in the Parrott are orders of magnitude higher than were Milltown soils. Why then does EPA argue for leaving the tailings in place?

The Butte Natural Resource Damage Restoration Council, a citizen advisory group with the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program, recently hosted a public meeting on this question. Joe Vranka, EPA Superfund Branch Chief, tried to answer it with a long presentation focused mainly on the technical issues of groundwater flow, capture, and treatment. In a nutshell, his argument was that since all of the toxic sediments on the Butte Hill cannot be cleaned up, contaminated ground water would still need to be collected and treated even if the tailings were removed. Since the water must be treated anyway and we’ve already built the system, we might as well collect and treat a lot as a little. It’s a version of the “in for dime, in for a dollar” argument. Some of you might remember U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara quoting this saying to defend continuing the Vietnam War.

The argument for removing the Parrott Tailings is supported by state-funded studies that began in 2004 and continue today. The plume of toxic water is moving toward Silver Bow Creek, not all of it can be captured, and it’s much more contaminated than previously thought. Removing the tailings would result in clean groundwater within about one hundred years. Current studies may bolster the removal argument by defining the extent of the plume and showing the threat to surface water.

At the public meeting, a local citizen and an Arco-BP official had a brief exchange that has become the stuff of legend. It’s an optimistic sign for a change of heart on the tailings removal question. The local citizen said to the official, “Well, what about it? Shall we just split the cost?” The official responded with a “Well, maybe we should talk…” —a long way from the firm “No!” we heard from Arco-BP in years past. Perhaps this reflects a public policy shift following the corporation’s Deep Horizon/Gulf oil spill. Some public relations analysts believe BP is trying to mend its reputation and cite examples such as BP giving five hundred million dollars to programs that research and assess the consequences of the spill.

New estimates of tailings volume and innovative methods of removal – such as a slurry pipeline directly to the Berkeley Pit – reduce the estimated cost of removal from twenty to thirteen million dollars. A copper rich layer of clay, worth about eleven million dollars, could even be mined to help recoup costs. Of course, either option depends upon the good will of Dennis Washington’s company, which currently enjoys unprecedented profits from its open pit copper mine in Butte.

Well, what about it Mr. Washington? Shall we split the cost?

Political science professor John Ray finds the EPA’s obstinacy a classic case of politics trumping good science. In policy terms, EPA’s decision to leave the tailings in place contradicts the Superfund mandate for permanent remedy, is not responsive to public input, and is an environmental justice issue because of the proximity to low-income residents.

For news about Superfund issues, visit the Clark Fork River Technical Assistance Committee’s website at hyperlink w-w-w dot C-F-R-T-A-C dot o-r-g.

From Butte to Missoula, we deserve a clean, healthy, and accessible Clark Fork River. It’s your river. Wade in, and help make the future.

Thank you, and good night.

Pat Munday
http://ecorover.blogspot.com
CFRTAC KUFM/Montana Public Radio Commentary
Pat Munday   This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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