KBMF's Dave Hutchins Looks at the Looming Climate Crisis in a Two Part Special Report

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When we think of environmental issues in Butte, of course Superfund comes to mind, but there are broader issues that will undoubtedly affect us in many ways. Climate change will have wide reaching impacts on our community, including effects on the remedial action and how we plan for those.

Climate change is not a new idea, everyone is familiar the premise at this point. But our understanding of the outcomes is becoming more clear. The language we use to describe these phenomenon is evolving as well. Once we called it “global warming”, which is accurate, but people had a hard time reconciling occasional cold weather they saw with this name. Scientists then began to use the term “climate change”, but skeptics were quick to point out that the climate has always been changing, and they questioned the anthropogenic causes.  

More recently, the term “climate disruption” has been adopted, and it is hard to deny the reality that human activity is resulting in climate disruption. Everywhere we look is evidence, from devastating wildfires to melting glaciers, from ocean acidification to extreme weather events. This term is easier for people to grasp, as they observe more extreme weather events in their regions that do not necessarily present as warming. For instance, a recent study showed how warming in the arctic can result in more extreme cold events at lower latitudes such as our own (see graphic).

Climate change has been in the headlines a lot in the last month. In November, 13 federal agencies released a report detailing the effects the changing climate will have on the economy, our health, and the environment. This National Climate Assessment is produced every four years, and this is the second volume. It attempts to put a price tag on some of the impacts over the next 80 years: $180 billion associated with sea level rise, or $141 billion from heat related deaths, for examples.

But perhaps the most startling aspect of this report is the current administration’s denial and contradictory policies. A systematic roll-back of environmental regulations and refusal to participate in climate action has characterized the policies of this US government.

These policies have permeated nearly every federal agency, such as the EPA and NOAA, but perhaps none as starkly as the Department of the Interior. The DOI is the executive department responsible for the management of federal lands and natural resources, among other tasks, and is currently headed by Montanan, Ryan Zinke.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a report titled Science under Siege at the Department of the Interior, detailing the actions of Zinke and the Department. The report lays out how they have systematically suppressed science and put the interests of coal, petroleum, and mining ahead of public health and the environment. They have refused to acknowledge climate change and have even struck it from the agency’s strategic vision. They restrict their scientists from communicating about their work and have removed or reassigned them. They have replaced many of the scientists on advisory committees with industry people. They take actions that will result in more emissions and increased fuel extraction on public lands.

The US is also refusing to acknowledge climate change on the international stage. The 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference was just concluded in Poland, and the US has essentially refused to participate. The US delegation joined with other oil producers, Russia, Saudi Arabi and Kuwait in blocking the UN’s climate report and has refused to sign onto the Paris agreement. Their position was summed up with Trump’s energy advisor Wells Griffith’s statement:

WG "We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability."

He delivered this in a speech to the conference without any sense of irony, and was met first with laughter, then protest.

On the other end of the spectrum, many at the conference sought nothing short of a complete reversal of current emission trends. Greta Thurnberg, a fifteen-year-old Swede speaking for Climate Justice Now, said it well:

GT: “You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake.

You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet.

Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money.

Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.

The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.

You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.

Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.

We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.

We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again.

We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time.

We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.

Thank you.”

But the conference ended Saturday with only modest agreements and no participation from the US. So, you may wonder what this means for us in the Northern Rockies. Tune in next time when we get some answers from a Department of the Interior scientist on how climate change might affect us here in Butte.

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In our last story we started to talk about climate disruption, about the overall warming of the atmosphere and the increases in extreme weather events. We talked about our government’s denials and attempts to silence scientists who have been raising alarms. This week we’ll talk to a scientist working within the Department of the Interior. Dave Williams is a Geologist with the Bureau of Land Management, here’s Dave:

DW: “The Bureau of Land Management is a land management agency, we manage and administer federal lands in the West, throughout the West, similar to the Forrest Service, just different, we’re in the Interior, FS is in Agriculture. It’s managing public lands for the larger benefit of the country.”

I asked Dave about the reports that scientists within the DOI are being silenced, and if he had experienced that, himself.

DW: “No, because I’m not a climate scientist, I’m a geologist, but I’m very interested in climate science and I’m also very familiar with climate science, the science itself and also some of the ongoing work. So, it wouldn’t necessarily directly affect me, because I’m typically involved with mine permitting and things like that, so it’s not something that would rise to the level that would be on the radar screen for anybody.”

But Dave has seen the effects, including the pages of climate change information the DOI quietly removed from their website. Fortunately, some like him within the department are still willing to speak up. Dave recently gave a presentation to the Society for Mining Engineers on Planning for Climatic Uncertainty. This webinar focused on extreme precipitation events at mine sites. With our proximity to an active mine, as well as historical elements, I thought it would be valuable to talk to him about climate disruption, in general, as well as in the context of remediation. We started with basic facts.

DW: “Climate science is really just physics, the physics of climate change and how carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gasses, including water, react in the atmosphere is basic physics. There’s no politics involved. It’s basic physics, as is the reality that as the atmosphere gets warmer it holds more water and that is what leads to your more intense storms. That also is just physics. Those are important things to keep in mind, that it’s just physics.”

I asked Dave about what kind of effects we might experience here in our region.

DW: “We expect to see, and actually have seen already, later arrival of winter in the fall and earlier arrival of spring in the spring. So a shorter winter season, more precipitation in the fall and spring as rain, which means reduced snowpack, which means issues with river flows later in the year. Warmer temperatures. Those are things we expect to continue to see and have already seen. We expect to see more droughty periods and more intense rainfall events. So potentially longer dry periods and when we do get rain it’s likely to be more intense. More intense rainfall can be more damaging in terms of erosion.”

It’s important to note these are not just theoretical predictions, these are trends scientists are already observing.

I asked Dave about how these changes might affect historical mine remediation on the hill.

DW: “The situation as it exists now is kind of the worst-case scenario because we have waste left in place unprotected. If we do have heavy rainfall events we’re going to have impacts both in terms of water going through the waste and also erosion of those wastes. So, leaving those waste in place is kind of a worst case scenario right now. The proposals that are before us now, in terms of Lower Area One, those proposals would definitely be a step in the right direction in terms of adaptation.”

Dave’s talking about the proposed stormwater retention features along Upper Silver Bow Creek. The plan includes a series of basins in the Northside tailings area, and the Diggin’s East, that will retain precipitation, drop out sediment, and mitigate heavy rainfall or snowmelt events. Existing retention basins on the hill have already proven to be effective.

We talked about examples of other sites that had experienced issues.

DW: “There have been several mine sites where they’ve experienced, not necessarily even extreme weather events, but just a combination of slightly abnormal weather and poor site management, where there’ve been some extremely damaging disruptions to the mining facilities.”

The Zortman-Landusky mine site is one local example. An extreme weather event in 2011 washed away caps and significant amounts of waste, and nearly took out a water treatment facility. Dave uses this example to show how relying on outdated or inadequate estimates of potential storm events can be disastrous.

But there are ways we can anticipate and plan to mitigate the effects of climate disruption. I asked Dave about steps that are being taken here.

DW: “Well, the native plants are deffinately more resilient, and what we’ve focused on in terms of reclamation for sites that we’re managing is making sure that the plants that are there are native species and that they’re drought tolerant species. Kind of generically, what I’ve focused people on in terms of reclamation, is making sure that the reclamation is geomorphologically realistic. In other words, it tries to recreate a functioning landscape. You know, in the natural environment you don’t get many flat long slopes with horizontal diversions, they just don’t happen, so those are the things we’re trying to get away from. The more drought tolerant species you can focus on, the better it will be. We’ve had pretty good luck at Golden Sunlight, for example, some of the slopes that have been reclaimed several years ago have held up pretty well during some extreme weather events. Those are the things we’ll have to focus on.”

So, we can effectively plan for climate disruption as it is now, but it will require first acknowledging the phenomenon, and hopefully doing what we can to minimize future impacts.

I’m Dave Hutchins, reporting for KBMF