Removal Work for the Parrot Tailings Begins

After years of negotiations and planning, the removal of the Parrot tailings began last week. The Parrot smelter operated on the banks of Silver Bow creek more than a hundred years ago, near where the Civic Center sits today. During its short life it left a massive pile of slag and tailings contaminated with various metals.

On June 21st a ceremony was held at the site and Montana’s governor Steve Bollock helped shovel the first scoops of the removal.

Gov. Steve Bollock “Today we actually get to begin that next chapter in that long process of cleaning up more than a hundred years of mining and smelting waste on the richest hill on earth. And I do so appreciate Butte Silver bow county, Montana Resources, and NRDP and our administration finding that path to make sure that the ground that we stand on today doesn’t contaminate the rivers and the streams that our children will be playing on tomorrow. The process hasn’t been without its challenges, but it’s often said that all good things take time to get right, and I know that we’ve gotten this right, and the removal of Parrot tailings is no different. Getting wastes out of waters way throughout the community is the premise of a good, thorough and fair cleanup and restoration, and don’t kid yourself, there’s still a heck of a lot more to come, as well, on this path.”

It was a joyous occasion, and many of the citizens who led the charge on the removal were there watching with satisfaction. Many have questioned the wisdom of cleaning up downstream first, so they’re glad the very headwaters, in the heart of the community, are finally receiving some attention.

Almost everyone agrees that removing the tailings will reduce the load of metals into the aquifer and potentially the creek. What is often debated is how the removal will be paid for.

In order to understand the path that led here, we need to examine a couple concepts within the Superfund framework. The first is the division of remediation versus restoration. The definitions of these words are central to the debate over the Parrot, so it is important to understand the difference.

Remediation is the process of removing or reducing pollution that is threatening the health of people or the environment. For example, millions of cubic yards of contaminated soil have been removed from the banks of Silver Bow creek and the Clark Fork because the metals were a direct threat to aquatic life.

So, if those contaminants were removed under remediation, what is left to do? Well, plenty. After the pollution is removed or contained, the next step is to restore the habitat. Restoration is the enhancement, creation, or re-creation of habitats. In the case of the stream banks, it is a restoration of the environment, the area is restored to a healthy ecosystem with native plants and a connected flood plain. Restoration can also include the human habitat, and restoration of damaged resources.

In 1983, the State of Montana filed a claim against ARCO for injuries to the State’s natural resources and for the public’s lost use and enjoyment of those resources. They reached a settlement and the Butte Natural Resource Damage Restoration Council was formed to decide how to use a portion of that money to restore, replace, or acquire the equivalent of the injured groundwater and surface water of upper Silver Bow creek. This money is considered restoration money, and is separate from the remediation responsibilities ARCO has under Superfund.

Occasionally, remediation of an area is deemed inordinately costly. And that brings us to the other concept: technical impracticability. The EPA can grant a TI waiver when it is impracticable to meet a standard, from an engineering standpoint. And this is the case for the aquifer around the Parrot, the EPA has granted ARCO a TI waiver allowing tailings in the corridor to remain as waste-in-place. Human health and the environment must still be protected, by eliminating human contact and by insisting on treatment of groundwater that might impact surface water.

But the State disagreed with this assessment, citing reports showing the plume of contaminated water was moving toward the creek faster than the EPA had assumed when they made the decision. The dispute became a sticking point in negotiations over the consent decree for the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit and community members started to organize to demand removal and restoration of the creek. With negotiations stalled, and public pressure mounting, gov Bullock announced in 2015 that the state would take the lead and begin to remove the Parrot tailings. The money for the project, or at least the first phase of it, would come from the Natural Resource damage settlements.

The recently released Conceptual Agreement reflects this, proposing the state will perform the Parrot tailings removal, implemented through the NRDP. And therein lies the rub. Removal of contaminated soils from a floodplain certainly seems to fit the definition of remediation. The EPA could attempt to force ARCO to perform the removal under remedy. But the state sees the removal as a necessary component of the restoration. The compromises they made were undoubtedly paramount to the advancement of negotiations, and a reversal at this point would likely derail the consent decree and force a unilateral order where everyone loses. For now, the community is just glad to see the removal is happening, but many are left wondering how we might have better spent those restoration dollars.

I’m Dave Hutchins reporting for KBMF