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EPA Announces Cleanup Deal For One Of The Biggest Superfund Sites In The U.S.


Now to the mining town of Butte, Mont., where the Environmental Protection Agency says it will finally begin cleaning up a massive Superfund site. Superfund sites are heavily contaminated areas. And the one in Butte is one of the most toxic ones. But some experts say the Trump administration's plan for its cleanup might not be enough. Montana Public Radio's Nora Saks reports.

NORA SAKS, BYLINE: A crowd packed a grand hotel for a ceremony in this historic mile-high mining city in the Rocky Mountains for the announcement. Local Superfund coordinator Jon Sesso held up a huge, white binder containing a 1,200-page detailed cleanup agreement.


JON SESSO: This is a day that I have just dreamed about, quite frankly, and sometimes thought would never come.

SAKS: Butte has been the epicenter of one of America's biggest industrial cleanup efforts since shortly after the federal Superfund law was enacted in 1980. It's one of the most toxic sites in the nation. And the once-proud industrial city has suffered stigma from it ever since - something local chief government executive Dave Palmer hopes will now end.


DAVE PALMER: Welcome to the beginning of Butte's future in the post-Superfund era.

SAKS: Local resident Rayelynn Brandl says that at one time, the entire mountainside that Butte was built on and where thousands of people still live was smothered in orange and yellow mine dumps and completely barren from a century of copper mining. As a kid, she thought all dirt was yellow.

RAYELYNN BRANDL: I always thought dirt looked like this ore body waste that we pull up. I didn't know that dirt was brown and loamy and smelled good, and you could grow things in it.

SAKS: Pat Cunneen, who also grew up here, has memories of playing in the creek, running through town with his buddies.

PAT CUNNEEN: Two days later, your shoelaces are gone. And about a week later, your shoes are gone because you fell in the creek, and it was full of acidic mine water.

SAKS: Butte is also infamously home to the Berkeley Pit, a colossal former open-pit mine, flooding with groundwater, laden with arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. It's proven lethal for birds that land on it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thousands of migrating snow geese are dead after landing in toxic water in Montana.

SAKS: The scale of contamination is so vast here because of the scale of mining in Butte. People here will tell you this mountain of metal made the bullets that won World Wars I and II and electrified America just as Thomas Edison's invention started taking off. And they're not exaggerating. Dick Gibson is a local historian.

DICK GIBSON: Almost certainly somewhere between 1/3 and 1/4 of all the copper produced on planet Earth from about 1905 to 1917 came from Butte - not Montana but Butte.

SAKS: But by the 1980s, all of the big mines were abandoned. Former state lawmaker Fritz Daily says people in Butte have been agitating for a permanent cleanup ever since.

FRITZ DAILY: We've done our part to make the nation what it is. Now we need the rest of the nation to do their part and the federal government to do their part to make sure they clean this place in a responsible way, which, to this point, they have absolutely not done.

SAKS: A lot of cleanup work has been done since the '80s. The once treeless yellow mountain now sprouts a lot of green grass and redevelopment. And the floodplain below is no longer a moonscape of mine tailings. But a final cleanup deal kept stalling out. The EPA's Greg Sopkin says the plan announced this week will get the cleanup over the finish line.


GREG SOPKIN: Today we are announcing and we are celebrating a proposal that will help bring closure to nearly four decades of Superfund activity in Butte.

SAKS: The cleanup settlement on the table is the result of high-stakes negotiations between EPA, state and local governments and oil company Atlantic Richfield, now a subsidiary of energy giant BP. It commits Atlantic Richfield to spend more than $150 million to remove tons of buried mine waste, capture and treat dirty water and maintain environmental protections forever. And it came about in large part because in 2017, the Trump administration put Butte on a priority list of 21 Superfund sites targeted for, quote, "immediate and intense attention." This week's announcement is an environmental victory the EPA can claim at a time that it's facing intense criticism for rolling back regulations on polluters. But independent Superfund expert Kate Probst says it needs to be viewed from a big-picture perspective.

KATE PROBST: I would argue, since there's 1,700-plus sites of which over 1,300 have not achieved their cleanup goals and over 500 have not actually implemented their cleanups, that addressing 21 sites is not really a very successful program.

SAKS: Last week, President Trump proposed slashing EPA's budget by more than a quarter and the Superfund program by more than $100 million. Probst says Superfund has suffered from inadequate funding for a long time. So in spite of the rhetoric...

PROBST: If this was really a priority for the administration, one would think that they would certainly not cut funds, and they might actually increase funding for the program.

SAKS: Congress hasn't weighed in on President Trump's proposed EPA cuts yet. But Butte's cleanup would likely not be affected because an oil company is responsible for funding it, not taxpayers. That's not the case for every Superfund site. The local government is expected to approve Butte's final cleanup deal, which then heads to federal court for review. For NPR News, I'm Nora Saks in Butte, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF VETIVER SONG "CONFIDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nora Saks
Nora Saks is a freelance radio and print journalist investigating themes of environmental justice in the Crown of the Continent and beyond.