Benevento and Kelly represent EPA at Butte Archives

Last week Butte and Anaconda were paid a visit by two of the Environmental Protection Agency’s top officials, Doug Benevento and Kel Kelly. They were here to provide an update on progress with Superfund, to listen to community concerns, and to answer questions.

Mr. Benevento is an administrator for region 8, the EPA region headquartered in Denver that includes Montana. He has visited before, and in January he announced an important milestone: the responsible parties and the agencies involved in the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit had reached an agreement in principle. This would mean that the long-awaited consent decree could be finalized and the federal gag order on the process could be lifted. The community breathed a collective sigh of relief, cautiously optimistic that the drawn-out cleanup would proceed with transparency.

On his return visit he was joined by Kel Kelly, EPA top administrator Scott Pruitt’s friend and right-hand man. Kelly serves as senior advisor to Pruitt, specifically charged with overseeing Superfund. Pruitt has made Superfund a priority during his tenure, and visits like these demonstrate the commitment.

DB “You know, Kel is the Superfund coordinator for the Administrator, senior advisor to the Administrator, and that really doesn’t do the job he has been entrusted with justice. When you are talking to Kel, you are effectively talking to the Administrator. He is someone, when we were working on the Consent Decree, that was instrumental in helping us move it forward, and getting it moved forward.”

That was Doug Benevento introducing Mr. Kelly at a public meeting they held Wednesday morning at the Archives in Butte. Here’s Kell Kelly:

KK “And so, I’m here, I try to travel and be with our regional administrators whenever I can, but I’m here to say that this is of high interest to him [Pruitt], and we are committed to getting this finished, we want to work with the responsible parties, we want to work with Butte, with all of you, and try to get this done.”

They were joined by state EPA personnel in providing updates and fielding questions. Much of the conversation revolved around the lifting of the federal gag order that has kept negotiations behind closed doors.

DB “We want to talk about the consent decree, obviously we still have the confidentiality, we have approached the court about lifting that confidentiality order, we have a status conference with the judge April 27th.”

Mr. Benevento confirmed that the agencies and responsible parties had together asked judge Haddon to lift the order. Everyone agrees that this is progress, here’s Joe Vranka, Montana’s top EPA official:

JV “You know, as Doug indicated at the beginning of this process, getting to a consent decree, where everybody agrees, really represents the best path forward for the community, and it accomplishes a lot of things outside of anything  we could accomplish simply going through a Unilateral Order. And we’re able to provide a lot more of what the community is interested in.

But without the details of the consent decree out on the table, the conversation was limited to generalities.

Comments and questions from the crowd ranged from concern over the Berkeley Pit to the need for a comprehensive health study. Many of the usual outspoken citizens were there letting the EPA know what they feel are the priorities. Here’s fritz Daley:

FD “What I really want to say to you today is we need your help, and this community needs your help badly. The two biggest issues facing this community, without question, are the cleanup of Silverbow creek flowing through the middle of our town and the Berkeley Pit. And if those issues are not addressed properly, this community is going to fail.”

The stretch of Silverbow creek between Texas avenue and Montana Street was a priority for many. Several attendees brought up issues with the current mining operations, which is outside of the prevue of Superfund, but officials were receptive to their concerns.

A running theme was the commitment to community involvement. Commenters insisted on thorough public comment processes, and the agencies reaffirmed their commitment.  Here’s Nikia Green, the remedial project manager:

NG “EPA is committing to get this done by the end of the year, right, and so we need a roll out plan, to include the community through every step of that process, and before.”

Some expressed the need for wider accessibility. It was noted there was no one in the room under thirty, and efforts should be made to include the youth and working families.

One attendee, Bill Boone, suggested the water and air quality data be made available, along with the standards and progress thus far.

BB “Just to see, after all is said and done, whenever that will be, has it improved, by how much, what is the target quality of the water?”

The EPA response was it was already in existence and he was directed to no less than four different websites where he could find the information. I went to several of these sites recommended, including those of Pitwatch, Restore Our Creek, and CTEC and could not find the data he asked for. I was able to find some of the data on ARCO, the responsible party’s website, BPSOU.com, but the most recent entry was from 2014 and the reports were technical documents not accessible to any layperson. The straightforward progress map Mr. Boone requested has not been made or I couldn’t find it. And It is a complicated endeavor, no doubt. This is one of the most monitored environments on earth with thousands of data points, and the data are open to interpretation.

But a reference like that would go a long way in informing a community that feels as if it has been kept in the dark.

I’m Dave Hutchins reporting for KBMF.