KBMF's Environmental News Roundup: EPA Shakeups, Colstrip's Future, and More

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KBMF Environmental News Roundup
Dave Hutchins

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for environmental news in Montana. Here’s a roundup of some of the headlines:

Butte has been on the Superfund National Priority List for almost 40 years and many of the community members who are involved have been so for decades. But the Agency personnel so integral to the process generally have a much shorter tenure. During his last visit, EPA senior aid Kel Kelly was realistic about these politically appointed positions;

KK: “We know we’re only here for a season, just the way things are.”

In the constantly changing cast of characters at the EPA, several changes were made recently that will impact Butte.

Montana was assigned a new Community Involvement coordinator last month, our third in as many years. Jacqui Barker began her orientation with a couple trips to Butte, to meet with the Restore our Creek Coalition and Citizen’s Technical Environmental Committee, as well as members of the press. Jacqui is a Montana native, returning after 25 years work in public relations at the Navy.

Eventually she will be the coordinator for most Montana Superfund sites, but she is easing her way in. For now, Chris Wordell remains in the position for Butte. Chris is based out of EPA regional headquarters in Denver, and many in Butte have requested a locally based community involvement coordinator during this critical time in negotiations.

Chris was preceded by Robert Moler, who left about a year ago after a short but productive time in the position. Robert was popular with local activists, he was seen as responsive and impactful, and Jacqui has said her strategy is to follow his lead.

The EPA also announced major changes with top level personnel. Andrew Wheeler was confirmed by the Senate to head the EPA in late February. Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry, replaces Scott Pruitt who had added Butte to a special priority list of Superfund sites. Wheeler has been acting chief since Pruitt stepped down amid questions of unethical behavior. Wheeler is expected to continue the Trumps administration’s rollback and reversal of environmental regulations, but to keep Superfund as a priority.

With Wheeler’s confirmation came the news the regional administrator Doug Benevento will be stepping up to be a senior counselor in DC. Doug has been quite active in Butte in the last year, pushing the Superfund process forward when it seemed to be at a stalemate. He is credited with bringing all of the stakeholders back to the table and for lifting the shroud of secrecy that was the federal gag order.

Many in the community have voiced concern over his departure, they worry the progress and timeline he proposed will be neglected in his absence. He made this prophetic statement back in April:

DB: “My successor should be asked the question…That’s what will make it stick.”

Another familiar EPA official will be donning yet another hat. Nikia Greene announced he will be the Remedial Project Manager for the new West Side Priority Soils Operable Unit, he is already the manager of Butte priority Soils and other Operable Units within the complex.

The EPA published a notice last week announcing that work would begin on the Westside Soils unit. They start with a remedial investigation and feasibility study that looks at the extent of contamination and what necessities and options exist for cleanup.

There are many unanswered questions about the unit, including who, if anyone, can be held responsible. Also unknown at this point are the boundaries. The EPA has gone back and forth on if areas of the Flats will be included and have said this investigation should help clear this up.

In other news, the Associated Press broke a story recently detailing the toxic emissions of 43 abandoned mines across the country. The report includes several sites in Montana, including the Rimini site north of Helena where mine drainage has contaminated groundwater.

The story, by Billings journalist Matt Brown, examined public data and independent research and showed more than 50 million gallons of contaminated wastewater streams from these 43 sites daily. Around 20 million gallons flows into groundwater or rivers untreated.

Many of these sites are Superfund sites, like the one at Rimini. They were added to the National Priority List in 1999, but polluted water still flows from the site, contaminating local wells. Abandoned mines like these are not uncommon, it is estimated there are as many as 500,000 nationwide, and most have not yet undergone a basic risk analysis.

Just south of there in Helena the legislature is currently in session. A number of important environmental bills have been circulating, the two bills attempting to limit carbon emissions I reported on previously both died in committee, but one senate bill that may have the opposite effect is alive and well. SB 278 was sponsored by Billings Senator Tom Richmond, its short title is “Revise cost-recovery and transfer laws for certain energy resources”.

This bill would allow Northwest Energy to purchase an additional portion of the troubled coal fired power plant, and to pass the cost on to consumers. Here’s Senator Richmond:

TR: “This bill represents… keep Colstrip generating.”

But opponents had major issues with the bill.

AH: “I think this bill is riddled with problems …only a good deal for NWE.”

That was Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center. She, and others, expressed skepticism over the clause that would disallow cleanup costs at Colstrip to be billed to Northwestern, and ultimately the ratepayers.

AH: “I don’t know how…the ash ponds have been leaking for decades”

Cleanup costs at Colstrip are expected to be significant, and two units are scheduled for shutdown no later than 2022. This bill would prevent the Public service commission from scrutinizing future costs and how they are passed on to the consumer. Many of the opponents spoke of Montana Power and the deregulation efforts at that time. Here’s Tom Schneider, former member of the PSC.

TS: “This bill harkens back…the same way here.”

But the bill passed easily from committee along a mostly partisan line. State republicans, like Duane Akeney who chairs the energy committee, have made it clear the saving Colstrip is a priority for a variety of reasons. Senator Richmond spoke to one reason why:

TR: “I think we all understand…miss if they were gone.”

Stay tuned as we continue to cover the legislature and other stories on the environment in Montana.

I’m Dave Hutchins reporting for KBMF

-Dave Hutchins’ work is funded in part by a grant from the Superfund Advisory & Redevelopment Trust Authority (SARTA)-