This piece was produced by Ted McDermott for the KBMF News team, and was partially funded by a grant from the Superfund Advisory & Redevelopment Trust Authority.
Last week, I went up to Montana Tech to hear Pat Williams give a talk.
Williams, a Butte native (and cousin of Evel Knievel) who represented Montana for nine consecutive terms in the US House of Representatives, was there to discuss his role in helping craft the nation’s Superfund law, to promote Butte’s initial listing under the law, and to ensure the Butte Hill got the clean-up it needed.
According to Williams, pushing to get Butte designated a Superfund site wasn’t only about the environment. It was also about the economy.
"The mining is gonna run out—and then the question was, what the hell are we gonna do? Well, what we had to do was get the federal government to help us create jobs to clean up the mess. We made a lot of jobs making the mess; now the mess needs cleaning, so Butte could get both sides of it."
In many ways, this vision of Butte as a place that benefited from both mining and its pollution has come to fruition.
Since Butte was first designated a Superfund site in 1983, the federal program has poured 250 million dollars into Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit alone, an area that extends from Walkerville to Timber Butte and encompasses Uptown.
That quarter-of-a-billion-dollar infusion of cash over the past 35 years has undoubtedly had a major impact on Butte.
And there have been numerous efforts to harness this money to build a new local economy.
One that would create jobs and businesses involved in cleaning up the “mess” that mining life.
Pat Williams, like others, calls this a restoration economy.
In a 2001 article for The Atlantic, William Langewiesche wrote about the connection between Butte’s long-term economic difficulties and the potential for its pollution to provide a new economic base for its recovery:
“Indeed, its toxic wastes, however abhorrent, may prove in some way to be the city's salvation,” Langewiesche wrote. “There are those who believe that pollution may just possibly provide an important new economic base that will allow Butte if not to prosper, then to live on with dignity, and perhaps to avoid the clownishness and implicit servility that seems increasingly to color the vacationland of western Montana.”
The subject of Langewiesche’s article was largely a Butte nonprofit known as the Montana Economic Research and Development Institute (or MERDI), which was founded in 1974 and established a for-profit company known then as Mountain States Energy and now known as MSE Technology Applications Inc.
But MSE’s efforts to capitalize on pollution remediation and use the profits for public good came to a bitter end late last year: In November, the debt-saddled company cut half of its workforce, auctioned off its equipment, and sold its facility just south of Butte, which it built for $168 million in the 1970s, for around $1.5 million.
But there have also been Superfund successes in Butte.
Many of this activity relates directly to the so-called Restoration Economy, says Joe Willauer, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corporation.
"It contributes a lot. We’re a Superfund site. It’s glaringly obvious, when I look out my window. There’s a lot of downside to that but there’s also a lot of opportunities. As a community, we don’t think a lot about how there’s world-class environmental remediation here. Like cutting-edge stuff. And it’s a huge economic opportunity. … It’s a huge driver of our economy."
For 35 years, Butte has relied on Superfund not only to fund special projects but a whole of jobs and industries. But an end is in sight.
In January, EPA administrator Doug Benevento announced that his agency and the other parties involved in Butte’s cleanup had come to an agreement about how to finish the Superfund process. And he revealed an ambitious timeline for getting the work done.
If all goes according to the plan, Benevento said, Butte will be delisted from Superfund in 2024.
In the two months since that announcement, there has been a palpable sense that the cleanup process is ramping up.
Plans to remove the contaminated Parrot tailings seem to have been finalized, with work set to begin later this year.
In addition, Montana Resources has announced that it plans to speed up its timeline for treating water in the Berkeley Pit and releasing it into Silver Bow Creek. A pilot project for doing so is slated to begin within about a year.
Willauer and others are hopeful that the ramping up of clean up activity will mean a boost to Butte’s economy:
"We’ve definitely received calls from organizations who are interested in it, b/c it will be creating work. … Clean water entering SBC is a good thing. Exciting. And a good opportunity."
Karen Byrnes, Butte Silver Bow’s director of community and economic development, says she’s also heard from “quite a few firms that aren’t here yet that are looking at coming here” as a result of the expected flurry in upcoming Superfund activity.
"A lot of times people think of it in a negative light …. But if you think about in tersm of the knowledge and the scientific minds and innovations that have to happen to do a cleanup of this magnitude, leveraging all of that into an environmental based economy, that’s a good thing. That’s a positive."
Over the past couple weeks, there have been signs that Willauer’s and Byrnes’s optimistic predictions might be right. An environmental remediation company known as Weston Solutions announced plans to open a Butte office, and a news recently broke that a $35 million medical training center is coming to Uptown.
And projects that are a direct part of the sped-up Superfund process, such as the removal of the Parrot Tailings, could help also help boost job creation and growth.
Brendan McDonough, who represents District 8 on the Butte-Silver Bow Council of Commissioners, says the boost in Superfund activity could breathe some new optimism into Butte after a long period of perceived—if not actual—stagnation.
"I think there is a connection and we’ve had one for quite a while. … Reclamation has played a big part in the economy. But it’s been going on four decades. I think most people in Butte are thinking “Thank God it’s about to start.” And we’re hoping to see some light at the end of the tunnel in the next 5-10 years."
But with the Superfund process picking up steam in the short-term, what might that mean for local economy in the long term?
If Benevento’s timeline proves right, the infusion of millions of Superfund dollars every year could end as early as 2024. If that happens, what will replace them as a driver of local jobs and business?
McDonaugh doesn’t have an answer, but he’s optimistic that once Butte’s environment is clean, a new economy will take root and grow.
"The environmental cleanup is the major factor in the health of the community, aesthetics of the community—but also economics of the community. So even after we get all of this stuff cleaned up… Butte SB is still left with the task of developing an economy, just like every other city in MT. I guess we’re just starting to get back to ground zero, I guess you could say. And then the responsibility is to build an economy that works for everybody. But at least we’ll have the opportunity to do that. B/c right now we’re hindered by the environmental clean-up and the stigma that goes with it."
I asked Pat Williams what he thinks about the future of Butte’s environment and economy. Is the Restoration Economy that Superfund has helped build sustainable? Will it survive Superfund itself?
Despite being a longtime advocate of Superfund, Williams’ assessment of its success—and its viability—was mixed.
"We could’ve done a lot more and put more money it. What do you guys think?"
For the KBMF News Hour, I’m Ted McDermott