There are over 1,300 toxic, Superfund sites in the United States: the dirtiest, most complicated and expensive environmental cleanups in the country. Today, we go to Montana for a dramatic look at one of the largest — where some say a long awaited clean up is finally heading in the right direction.
Over the past 150 years, the hills in Butte, Montana have yielded hundreds of millions of tons of rock containing valuable copper. At one time, thousands of miners worked here in what was called “the richest hill on earth.” But a century and a half of mining created an environmental disaster.
Sister Mary Jo McDonald: This place is contaminated area and there’s no doubt about it.
Sister Mary Jo McDonald may be Butte’s most recognized environmental activist.
Sister McDonald: That will be reclaimed the way it should be.
She helped shape plans for the final Superfund cleanup, which is being led and paid for by the company that bought out the polluter.
Sister McDonald: I think it’s a good solution. I do believe they’ve made a good faith effort and they have presented to us the possibilities of an area that would be pleasant for some amenities for people to enjoy.
The mile long, half mile wide Berkeley Pit is the most visible leftover from Butte’s Big Dig. Nearly 1000 feet deep, the water is laden with metals and chemicals that leached from the rock. So toxic, noisemakers are used to keep birds and animals away. Under the 1980 Superfund law, the worst, hazardous material locations in the US were prioritized for long term cleanup. The pit was declared a Superfund site in 1987. Here, devising the plan to even begin the mandatory cleanup took eight long years.
Sister McDonald successfully pushed for the ambitious solution to filter the hazardous pit water left over from mining. A water treatment plant will soon go online to treat three million gallons a day. The filtered water will be released into a mostly-dry creek bed. While there’s broad agreement on that part of the plan. There’s still a lot of arguing over the rest of the cleanup around the pit and in Butte.
Over the years, toxic mine residue called “tailings” were dumped around town. There have been heated negotiations between advocates, residents and the mine companies over removing the waste and what to build afterwards. There are plans for a system of parks, trails and a fishing pond.
Loren Burmeister: We're proposing to develop approximately 120 acres of park that will use our storm water basins as water features, so they'll be set in a naturalized setting, there will be walking trails throughout.
Loren Burmeister is a manager at the company that inherited the burden of cleanup when it bought old mine assets.
Loren Burmeister: The response from the public meetings has been overwhelmingly supportive. I believe it’s going to result in a great plan for the city of Butte.
But the plans fall far short of Sister McDonald’s goal of restoring Butte to its pristine state seen 150 years ago. As some copper mining continues here, the fixes for the previous mess come with a large price tag. By one estimate, it will cost a million dollars a year just to process the pit water. The polluters and those who bought them out pay most of the tab. The federal government pays for some oversight costs. Today, about 350 miners still work on the surface in Butte— but any toxic water is filtered and recycled for use at the mine.
Mark Thompson is in charge of environmental issues for Montana Resources, which mines there today.
Mark Thompson: We know after 30 years of monitoring groundwater around the Berkeley pit, we know the pit has a death grip on the ground water and it's all flowed towards the pit. Now it’s our turn to show that we can control the pit. I think people are very happy that it's getting done sooner than it would otherwise get done.
Sister McDonald says fixing the pit does appear to be on the right track. But more than 30 years after Butte became a Superfund site, she says she’ll continue fighting to restore Butte to a more original state —even if others are willing to accept less.
Sister McDonald: What’s going on now is not acceptable and if we say yes to this, that all Butte’s going to get. So I’m saying no and I don’t care that 10 others said yes. I'm saying no.
The EPA estimates it will take at least 5 more years to complete the creek restoration. Cleaning the water from the Berkeley Pit will have to continue indefinitely.